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Thursday, January 9, 2014

City Did Not Violate Officer's First Amendment Rights in Removing him from K-9 Team

In Hagen v. City of Eugene, No. 12-35492 (Dec. 3, 2013), the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court's ruling against the City in a Section 1983 action.
The case involved a city police officer who noticed that members of his SWAT team were often firing their weapons accidentally and negligently. The officer raised his concerns about the actions of his team through e-mails and raising the issue in department meetings. Eventually, Hagen was removed from the K-9 team, and he filed a lawsuit against the City claiming it violated his First-Amendment rights by retaliating against him for exercising his First Amendment rights. A jury found for the officer, and awarded him $50,000 in compensatory damages and $200,000 in punitive damages.
On appeal, the Ninth Circuit applied the following First Amendment test for public employee speech:
(1) whether the plaintiff spoke on a matter of public concern; (2) whether the plaintiff spoke as a private citizen or public employee; (3) whether the plaintiff’s protected speech was a substantial or motivating factor in the adverse employment action; (4) whether the state had an adequate justification for treating the employee differently from other members of the general public; and (5) whether the state would have taken the adverse employment action even absent the protected speech.

In this case, the court focused on the second factor: whether the officer spoke as a private citizen or public employee. The court concluded that there was not enough evidence to support the jury’s finding that the officer spoke as a private citizen. Here, the officer raised his complaints with his supervisors and department, not to the public at large.  As a result, his speech was not protected, and the City did not violate the officer's First Amendment rights.
Post Authored by Julie Tappendorf, Ancel Glink


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