SW Legal studies in Business

County Could Demote Firefighter for Intimate Relationship with Subordinate

Appeals court held that the right to intimate relationships was subordinated to the interest of a county to maintain discipline in its fire department. Hence, the department could demote a supervisor who had an intimate relationship with a subordinate.

Topic Employment Law
Key Words

First Amendment; Intimate Relationships; Right of Association

C A S E   S U M M A R Y

Starling was a firefighter for Palm Beach County. His rank was captain. He arranged for Smith, another firefighter, to be transferred to his station as his subordinate. The two began an intimate relationship. Starling’s supervisor recommended demoting him for having the relationship as it was disrupting the station. The county administrator accepted the recommendation and demoted Starling. He then sued his supervisor and the County for violating his First Amendment right to intimate association. The district court dismissed the suit. Starling appealed.


Affirmed. The County’s interest in discouraging intimate associations between supervisors and subordinates was critical to effective functioning of the fire department. That outweighed Starling’s interest in his relationship with Smith at the workplace. The fire department has a need to secure discipline, mutual respect, trust and efficiency. The relationship impaired internal discipline in the fire station. The balancing test for determining the constitutionality of burdens in the intimate association contest requires 1) an adverse employment action in which 2) protected association was a “substantial” or “motivating” factor in the public employer’s decision.

Citation Starling v. Board of County Commissioners, ---F.3rd--- (2010 WL 1294054, 11th Cir., 2010)

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