Appeals court: Former PHA employee's freedom of speech not denied when he was demoted

Posted: July 08, 2012

A federal appeals panel ruled Friday that the freedom of speech of a former employee of the Philadelphia Housing Authority was not denied when he was demoted.

Vincent Morris, a former assistant to ousted Executive Director Carl R. Greene, had sued the agency on the ground that it took punitive measures against him after he had protested about what he saw as illegal activities.

A three-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld a lower-court decision in favor of PHA. It said Morris' statements as a public employee were not protected by the First Amendment since they were made in connection with his official duties.

"We have consistently held that complaints up the chain of command about issues related to an employee's workplace duties - for example, possible safety issues or misconduct by other employees - are within an employee's official duties," wrote Circuit Judge Michael A. Chagares.

PHA is "very pleased" with the decision, said spokeswoman Nichole Tillman. Michael Pileggi, an attorney for Morris, said he needed to consult with his client before saying if he would appeal.

Morris was assigned to troubled departments at PHA, including its affiliated nonprofit, Tenant Support Services Inc. (TSSI).

In his lawsuit, he said he was required to participate in lobbying activities, which are prohibited for federally funding housing agencies. He also resisted participating in a political action committee run by TSSI's director, Asia Coney, and accused her and another employee of embezzling money.

Morris alleged that Greene and Coney ignored his complaints and cut his salary by $30,000.

"Morris' admitted job duties clearly include the oversight of TSSI and rooting out financial, as well as other, problems at PHA," Chagares wrote.

He added that Morris' reporting of embezzlement after reviewing TSSI's books can be considered part of his official duties because it related to information acquired through his employment.


Contact Jennifer Lin at 215-854-5659 or jlin@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @j_linq.

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