The former deputy director of the city’s 911 call center has filed a federal lawsuit against the agency, claiming her right to free speech was violated when she was fired for badmouthing Andy Kopplin, who until this summer was Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s second-in-command.
As deputy mayor and chief administrative officer, Kopplin served on the board that oversees the Orleans Parish Communication District. He was a key proponent of Landrieu’s successful push to move police, fire and EMS 911 operators from their respective departments to the Communication District.
The plan was controversial because it removed 911 call-takers from city employment, stripping them of their Civil Service protections.
Orleans Parish Communication District Deputy Director Frith Malin was openly critical of the proposal, but according to her lawsuit that’s not what led to her firing.
In June, Communication District Director Stephen Gordon sent a message to employees to tell them Kopplin planned to leave the city to become president of the Greater New Orleans Foundation, which manages a portfolio of charitable funds.
Malin responded, “I’m sure he’ll do just as good a job bleeding all these funds dry, just as he has done with the City. I’m willing to bet he starts charging a higher admin/maintenance fee to the entities that have funds there.”
According to the suit, she intended to send her response just to Gordon, but she inadvertently hit “reply all.”
Her statement, Malin argues, was protected by the First Amendment because she was speaking as a “private citizen regarding a matter of public concern” and not as a Communication District employee doing her job. That language mirrors U.S. Supreme Court rulings protecting public employees’ speech in some cases.
It’s unclear exactly what Malin was referring to. She declined to comment; Kopplin couldn’t be reached.
Kopplin served as Landrieu’s top deputy from the beginning of his first term in 2010 until August, managing the city’s day-to-day operations and developing its budget.
The city faced a $100 million deficit when Landrieu took office. Under Kopplin, it improved its credit ratings and built up its reserve fund. But the administration’s cost-saving measures meant that for a few years, some agencies that depend on city dollars, including courts and the public library, had to use their reserve funds to continue operating.
Three days after Malin sent that message, she was suspended pending an investigation by Human Resources Director Jeanne Hobson.
In her lawsuit, Malin also accused Hobson of misbehaving at work by frequently discussing her sex life in graphic detail. Several employees, including Malin, complained to supervisors that this created a hostile work environment, the suit says. Hobson declined to comment for this story.
In July, Hobson delivered a report concluding that Malin had violated the agency’s employee conduct policy when she expressed personal opinions in that email and others. The suit doesn’t identify the other emails Hobson cited.
The conduct policy calls for employees to be “courteous, civil and respectful,” but it doesn’t say anything about expressing opinions. Unauthorized use of a computer is considered a minor violation typically warranting a reprimand.
Gordon declined to provide a copy of the report and refused comment, citing the ongoing litigation. The Lens has filed a public records request for the report and asked for a legal justification if the agency decides to withhold it.
Malin was fired a few weeks later. Before that, according to her suit, she had never been suspended or disciplined in her eight years working for the agency.
Communication District lawyer Juan Lizarraga said he could not discuss specific allegations in the lawsuit. Generally speaking, he said, “We deny the allegations and we will defend it.”