Yeakel Rules for Diane Hyatt

Shea supporter fired by Texas Water Development Board

Diane Hyatt
Diane Hyatt
Photo by Jana Birchum

On May 13, U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel dumped cold water on a Texas Water Development Board effort to get out from under a wrongful termination lawsuit. Yeakel ruled that former agency coordinator Diane Hyatt can pursue her suit against administrators who fired her – allegedly for Working While Democrat.

Hyatt was fired two years ago (May 11, 2012), after six years at the TWDB and a day after her name appeared in an Austin American-Statesman story about campaign “bundling” in the 2012 Austin mayor’s race. Hyatt had bundled contributions for candidate Brigid Shea, and the story quoted her in support of Shea and noted her coordinating position at the TWDB. Although a supervisor had not objected to Hyatt talking to a reporter about the campaign, the next day she was called in and informed that she had violated the agency’s ethics policy by “engaging in political activity on state time or utilizing state resources,” and would be terminated (without even the option of resigning).

Apparently, Hyatt’s bosses had searched her computer and found a few incidental emails concerning her fundraising efforts, and used them to justify her dismissal. However, a subsequent open records search, reports her attorney Derek Howard, turned up many emails with political content circulated by “approximately 20” TWDB employees, all of them either promoting Republican causes or disparaging Democrats – including joking about assassinating President Barack Obama or disseminating racist jokes. One such email between employees read: "Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Give the man a welfare check, a forty ounce malt liquor, a crack pipe and some Air Jordans and he votes Democrat for a lifetime."

According to Howard, there has been no action taken against any of the other employees “who had engaged in types of political speech, all of whom were on the Republican/Tea Party side of the fence,” even after the discovery searches revealed their emails: “The person who joked about advocating the assassination of Obama,” Howard said, “is still working there.”

Hyatt’s lawsuit, filed against TWDB Executive Administrator Melanie Callahan and Deputy Executive Administrator Lisa Glenn, charges that the emails were used simply as a pretext to dismiss an employee whose political affiliations supervisors found objectionable. The defendants had asked for a summary dismissal of Hyatt’s claims, and Yeakel rejected their motion. “It’s a big deal,” said Howard, “because the state was trying to throw the case out and the judge said, No, it’s going forward.”

Yeakel’s ruling noted that the newspaper story was the “triggering event” for Hyatt’s firing, and that “a reasonable jury could consider the evidence and find that Glenn and Callahan failed to show that they would have terminated Hyatt’s employment in the absence of Hyatt’s [constitutionally] protected speech.” The judge directed the parties to propose a schedule for trial by the end of the month.

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