Where a woman sued a Spotsylvania County Deputy Sheriff after learning the deputy offered to buy lunch for another officer if he cited the woman for reckless driving, but there was no error in the jury instructions or evidentiary rulings, the verdict for the deputy was affirmed.
Several years ago, Spotsylvania County Deputy Sheriff Marcia Curtis cited Rebecca Snoeyenbos for a parking violation. In response, Snoeyenbos complained about Curtis on social media for issuing the citation.
More recently, Spotsylvania County Deputy Sheriff Jaime Riley cited Snoeyenbos for reckless driving. Listening to her police radio, Curtis heard about Riley’s encounter with Snoeyenbos. She then called Riley and offered to buy him lunch if he cited Snoeyenbos. After Snoeyenbos learned of Curtis’ lunch offer, she sued Curtis, alleging the lunch offer violated her First Amendment rights. The jury found Curtis not liable.
The third paragraph of jury instruction no. 24 states “The Defendant’s conduct must amount to something more than a de minimis — meaning a trivial or insignificant — inconvenience to the exercise of expressive activity. That is, the Plaintiff must prove some specified harm that would likely deter a person of ordinary firmness from exercising his or her First Amendment rights. Hurt feelings or a bruised ego do not by themselves amount to a constitutional violation.”
Snoeyenbos claims that paragraph misstates the law. She insists that, under McClure v. Ports, 914 F.3d 866 (4th Cir. 2019), the requirement of more than a de minimis inconvenience does not apply when the legitimate government interest does not dwarf the private interest. And since she claims Curtis had no legitimate government interest in offering a lunch to Riley that might dwarf opposing private interests, she insists the more than de minimis requirement does not apply.
In First Amendment retaliation claims, the court asks, from an objective standpoint, whether the challenged conduct would “likely deter a person of ordinary firmness from the exercise of First Amendment rights.” And it requires that the challenged conduct generate more than a de minimis inconvenience.
The strength of the governmental interests may be relevant given the facts of the particular case. But this requirement that the challenged conduct results in more than a de minimis inconvenience is not cabined to cases in which the governmental interests dwarf the private interests. The district court, therefore, did not err in instructing the jury on the more than de minimis inconvenience standard.
Snoeyenbos next contends the remaining statements in the same jury instruction misstated the law. Even construed in the worst light, the few words about which Snoeyenbos complains do not meaningfully alter the substance of the instructions. Under the standards by which the court reviews jury instructions, it finds no reversible error here.
Snoeyenbos challenges the district court’s decision to exclude and limit the testimony of Dr. Repanshek and Mr. Snoeyenbos during the liability phase of the trial. The court finds no abuse of discretion in the district court’s decisions.
After the court’s summary judgment rulings, the only issue that remained for the jury’s consideration was whether Curtis’ offer to buy Riley lunch itself had a chilling effect on speech from the view of a person of ordinary firmness in Snoeyenbos’ position. That is an objective question. Allowing multiple witnesses, in addition to Snoeyenbos, to testify about her state of mind would have risked distracting the jury from the objective nature of the inquiry.
And even with the court’s decision, Snoeyenbos was permitted to testify about the effect of learning about Curtis’ offer of lunch to Riley. What’s more, the parties stipulated that after Snoeyenbos learned of the call, she began receiving therapy care from Dr. Repanshek.
Finally, Snoeyenbos argues that the district court erred in excluding information about Snoeyenbos’ conversation with Deputy Spillman, who allegedly told her, after her Facebook posts following the 2013 citation from Curtis, that she should “take down her posts about the ticket and that she was ‘poking a bear.’” The district court excluded the evidence because Snoeyenbos lacked the evidentiary support to connect Spillman’s comment to Curtis’ action. The court finds no abuse of discretion or reversible error here.
Snoeyenbos v. Curtis, Case No. 21-1779, Feb. 21, 2023. 4th Cir. (Quattlebaum), from EDVA at Richmond (Novak). Andrew Bodoh for Appellant. Justin Lee Criner for Appellee. VLW 023-2-053. 18 pp.