NEW ORLEANS — The 5th District Court of Appeals has issued a mixed ruling in a case arising from a heated Jefferson Parish council meeting in Gretna in 2013, in which a citizen was ejected after raising questions about a no-bid contract awarded to a campaign contributor.
Plaintiff Tom Heaney alleged in a 2014 lawsuit that Councilman Christopher Roberts and Gretna Police Officer Ronald Black violated his First and Fourth Amendment rights and sought compensatory and punitive damages. He also claimed that Roberts and Black violated his right to free expression under Louisiana law, and that Black was liable for false arrest, battery and negligence.
His suit alleged that Jefferson Parish and the city should be vicariously liable as employers of Roberts and Black.
According to case background detailed in the court order, Heaney attended a regularly scheduled council meeting in Gretna on Sept. 18, 2013, in order to discuss the legality of council members accepting campaign contributions from those contractors who had applied for and received no-bid contracts from the council.
Registered speakers get five minutes to address the council, and when Heaney had been speaking for about three minutes, he was interrupted by Roberts, who asked if he would yield the floor to the parish attorney, Deborah Foshee, the order stated.
"Heaney believed that he would receive the balance of his time after Ms. Foshee finished speaking given that a prior speaker had been given the balance of her time after yielding," the order said. "Ms. Foshee spoke for several minutes, expressing her opinion that the council’s actions were legal. After she finished speaking, Heaney asked Roberts, 'May I have my time back?' and Roberts responded, 'Yes, how much time do we have?' Heaney then expressed his wish to challenge the parish attorney’s opinion. At that point, he was interrupted again by Roberts.”
A portion of the transcript included in the order shows this exchange between Roberts and Heaney:
Roberts: … Once again, I’m going to ask you, are you an attorney?
Heaney: I don’t have to be an attorney to read and comprehend a decision—
After the exchange, Black responded to Roberts' request to remove Heaney.
Heaney alleges Black shoved him, which caused him to fall. When he got up, Black "seized him by the arms and forcibly ejected him from chambers” into an elevator and down to the first floor, the order said. Black allegedly consulted his supervisor on whether Heaney should be arrested, while Heaney waited for an ambulance.
A judge in federal court in the Eastern District of Louisiana had denied Roberts' motion for summary judgment on the First Amendment and state constitutional claims. Additionally, the court denied Black’s motion for summary judgment on the state-law battery and negligence claims.
Those claims are pending against Gretna on a theory of respondeat superior, the order stated. Because the state constitutional claim remains pending, Jefferson Parish remains in the lawsuit as Roberts’ employer on that claim.
The lower court also granted summary judgment on the free speech claims as to Black.
The 5th Circuit panel issued its decision Jan. 23. Panel members included Judges Edith Clement, Priscilla Owen and Edward Prado, who authored the opinion.
The appeals court dismissed Roberts' appeal on the First Amendment claim, ruling that there is a material-fact issue as to whether there was viewpoint discrimination. It also affirmed the district court's denial of punitive damages. And it affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of Black on the First Amendment claim and the Fourth Amendment claim.
The appeals court also affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Black on the false-arrest claim and dismissed Black’s cross-appeal on the state-tort claims for lack of jurisdiction.