Updates on cases, laws, and other topics of interest to local governments

Subscribe by Email

Enter your Email:
Preview | Powered by FeedBlitz

Subscribe in a Reader

Follow Municipal Minute on Twitter


Blog comments do not reflect the views or opinions of the Author or Ancel Glink. Some of the content may be considered attorney advertising material under the applicable rules of certain states. Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome. Please read our full disclaimer

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

US Supreme Court: City Cannot Demote Officer for Perceived Political Activities

The U.S. Supreme Court recently issued an opinion in a case involving a claim filed by an employee against a city claiming he had been unlawfully demoted by the city as punishment for engaging in political activities. The Supreme Court found in favor of the officer, holding that he had the right to challenge his demotion, even when the demotion was not based on his actual behavior, but a perception by the city that he was engaging in political speech. Heffernan v. City of Paterson (April 26, 2016)

Police detective Heffernan was seen by co-workers picking up a campaign sign for the current mayor's opponent in the upcoming municipal elections. His co-workers reported what they saw to their supervisor, and the next day, Heffernan was demoted from detective to patrol officer as punishment for his "overt involvement" in the mayor's opponent's campaign. He filed suit against the city, claiming that he was demoted for engaging in constitutionally protected speech. The city argued that because he wasn't actually engaging in any speech since he was picking up the sign for his mother, the demotion was not unlawful. The lower courts agreed with the city, but the U.S. Supreme Court reversed.

According to the opinion, where an employer demotes or takes some other adverse action against an employee out of a desire to prevent the employee from engaging in protected political activities, the employee has a right to challenge that action under the First Amendment. The law is clear that the First Amendment prohibits a government employer from discharging or demoting an employee because the employee supports a particular political candidate (with very limited exceptions). The Court held that this prohibition also applies where the employer bases its actions on a mistaken belief about the employee's activities because it is the government's reason for demoting an employee that matters, not the employee's motive. Here, the city supervisors demoted Heffernan because they thought he engaged in political speech, acting on an unconstitutionally harmful policy.

The case was remanded back to the lower court to determine whether the city's actions were pursuant to a neutral policy prohibiting officers from involvement in political campaigns and, if it exists, whether such a policy would be constitutional.

The lesson for governments?  Be careful in taking any adverse action against an employee for engaging in political or other protected speech (whether real or perceived). 

Post Authored by Julie Tappendorf


Post a Comment