In the 2008 presidential campaign, John McCain, Sarah Palin and the media made Wurzelbacher the icon for Republican opposition to then-Senator and candidate Barack Obama’s economic policies.
Obama was campaigning in Wurzelbacher’s neighborhood. Wurzelbacher asked Obama about the potential tax consequences of opening a plumbing business. Obama’s reply included a statement that he wanted to “spread the wealth.”
The exchange was caught on video and soon after, McCain, during a presidential debate, dubbed Wurzelbacher as “Joe the Plumber.”
Wurzelbacher became a media darling, dispensing criticism of Democratic policies in general and Obama’s in particular.
He’s capitalized on that by running for Congress in Ohio’s 9th District. Earlier this month, he won the Republican primary and will face incumbent Democrat Rep. Marcy Kaptur in the November general election.
He’s also been watching a federal First Amendment and privacy rights lawsuit that he filed swirl right down the drain.
Wurzelbacher’s exchange with Obama drew more than just media attention.
According Wurzelbacher’s suit, several days after his Oct. 12, 2008, encounter with Obama, three high-ranking officials in the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, all Obama supporters, huddled together. They decided to authorize searches related to Wurzelbacher on child-support enforcement, welfare and unemployment databases, which were at their disposal.
Did they uncover any dirt? We’ll never know because the search results were never made public. But what became known, after the Office of the Ohio Inspector General made inquiries, was that the searches took place.
Wurzelbacher’s suit alleged that all three officials were suspended, and when the dust settled, two had resigned and the third was fired.
He alleged First Amendment and privacy right violations, claiming his exchange with Obama motivated the searches.
The federal district court granted defendant officials judgment on the pleadings.
In the Sixth Circuit, Judge Richard Griffin noted:
In order to adequately plead a First Amendment retaliation claim, a plaintiff must allege:
(1) the plaintiff engaged in constitutionally protected conduct;
(2) an adverse action was taken against the plaintiff that would deter a person of ordinary firmness from continuing to engage in that conduct; and
(3) the adverse action was motivated at least in part by the plaintiff’s protected conduct.
Griffin, joined by Judges Julia Gibbons and Bernice Donald, agreed with the federal district court that Wurzelbacher came up short on pleading an “adverse action.”
He asserts that defendants, without his knowledge, performed several improper database searches under his name. However, the complaint contains no information regarding what, if any, information was discovered. Moreover, if any information was obtained, it was never publicly disclosed. …
Wurzelbacher did not suffer a threat to his economic livelihood … was not defamed … did not endure a search or seizure of property … and did not experience the public disclosure of intimate or embarrassing information … .
In addition, Wurzelbacher was not threatened with a continuing governmental investigation, and he does not allege that defendants’ actions in fact caused a “chill” of his First Amendment rights.
As to that last point, it’s tough to imagine how he could have possibly done so.
The appeals panel also ruled that informational privacy rights are violated when released information may lead to bodily harm or concerns matters of a sexual, personal or humiliating nature.
Wurzelbacher pleaded none of this.
No harm, no foul.
The case is Wurzelbacher v. Jones-Kelley, et al.