A federal judge has thrown out a whistleblower lawsuit filed last year by a former Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office deputy who said he was forced to resign after his superiors determined he had provided a photograph of a bloodied jail cell to a civil rights organization.
The former deputy, Bryan Collins, accused Sheriff Marlin Gusman of violating his First Amendment rights after the graphic crime-scene photograph turned up in the local media. The photo suggested the Sheriff’s Office’s had played down the injuries an inmate received in a stabbing at Orleans Parish Prison.
Collins admitted snapping the image with his cellphone in June 2013 and sending it to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which had filed a class-action suit against Gusman over conditions at the jail. Gusman had described the stabbed man’s injuries as “superficial cuts.”
U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance ruled that Collins’ right to comment on “matters of public concern” had been “outweighed by the government’s interest in the efficient provision of government services.”
Vance, in a 17-page order, said that Collins’ “speech” — his sharing of the photograph — had been made possible by his violation of a Sheriff’s Office policy barring deputies from carrying cellphones into the jail. Collins also violated policy by distributing the image without approval, the judge wrote, concluding that he had “interfered with the regular operations of Orleans Parish Prison.”
“These violations were especially egregious,” Vance wrote, “given that the photograph at issue depicted evidence and the crime scene in a then-open criminal prosecution.”
Gusman issued a news release Tuesday saying Collins’ lawsuit “was a politically motivated attack that failed.”
Collins said he was disappointed in Vance’s ruling but that it represented only “a single phase” in his legal struggle, suggesting he might appeal. He rejected Gusman’s characterization of his actions as a political attack.
“Marlin Gusman must learn the principles of transparency and truthfulness and how the continued lack of both will further erode what slight vestige of public integrity he and his (office) has managed to salvage to this point,” Collins said.
“My decision to engage in the manner I did,” he added, “was developed through witnessing too much unabated bloodshed, ignored crimes of violence and sexual assault, duplicitous direction, if at all, and no foreseeable prospect for positive change under the current administration.”
In his lawsuit, which sought $1.5 million, Collins claimed a supervisor began making threats after the Sheriff’s Office learned that one of its employees had been cooperating with the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“Somebody is going to pay,” the supervisor is quoted as saying. “You are going to learn that what happens here stays here.”
Sheriff’s Office officials later interrogated Collins, the lawsuit said, threatening him with termination and prosecution. Collins eventually was told he “could not return back to work,” the lawsuit said.
Sheriff’s Office officials have disputed that account, claiming they offered Collins “his same work schedule, his same shift, a different supervisor and a different building” if he returned to work. They also claimed there had been no retaliation or hostile work environment.
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