Verizon Secures Dismissal of Ex-Employee’s Free Speech Suit on Claim Preclusion Grounds

On Wednesday, the District of Maryland dismissed an employment lawsuit brought by a former Verizon Communications Inc. senior solutions architect. The pro se plaintiff filed suit in June 2020 alleging that he was unlawfully terminated without an investigation based on his publication of two social media articles.

According to the opinion, the plaintiff had “an exemplary professional record” during his tenure at Verizon from 2002 to 2018. In his last role, he reportedly supported federal clients including the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense.

The court noted that the plaintiff is an author, and in that role, he published two articles on a Facebook page described as “being for the purpose of promoting traditional Hindu theology and spirituality,” though they were both shared to the plaintiff’s personal feed. The first article, published in May 2018 included content “reporting on a retired federal executive’s alleged sexual abuse of a child,” while his second, published a month later, included content “reporting on alleged misconduct in the administration of a federal contract.”

Verizon, aware of the articles and their content, reportedly held a telephonic conference with the employee after their publication. The employer told him that he would be suspended pending an internal investigation, and ultimately fired him, the opinion said. 

Thereafter, the employee filed suit in the Eastern District of Virginia, alleging that the termination occurred without consideration of whether his activities were protected free speech that the articles did not adversely impact Verizon’s interests. The court dismissed the complaint, finding that he failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted because Verizon, a non-governmental actor, could not be held accountable for alleged free speech violations.

After his appeal was rejected by the Fourth Circuit, the trial court permitted the plaintiff leave to amend his complaint within 30 days, warning that failure to do so would result in dismissal with prejudice. The plaintiff did not timely re-file his complaint, the opinion recounted, but more than a year later, filed the instant suit in a separate court.

Verizon filed a motion to dismiss arguing that the doctrine of res judicata barred the plaintiff’s claims. The court agreed, finding the three elements of claim preclusion satisfied. As to the third element, “a subsequent suit based on the same cause of action,” the court noted that to the extent the plaintiff purported to raise new claims under federal civil rights or state tort statutes, those claims arose from the same transaction or occurrence as the claims initially raised, and could have been brought in the first instance. The court also declined to grant leave to amend after finding that revision would be futile.

Verizon is represented by Jackson Lewis.