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Ruling Focuses on Employer's Motivation Rather than the Employee's Intent -- Even Where Employer Was Mistaken Regarding the Employee's Behavioral Intent

The Supreme Court recently expanded potential municipal liability in Heffernan v. City of Patterson, New Jersey (No. 14-1290, Apr. 26, 2016)[1].

The plaintiff, Jeffrey Heffernan, is a police officer working in the Police Chief’s office in Patterson, New Jersey. The police chief had been appointed by the incumbent mayor, who was running for reelection. Lawrence Spagnola was a candidate trying to unseat the incumbent mayor and is friends with the plaintiff.

Plaintiff was witnessed by a fellow police officer delivering a campaign sign for Spagnola to plaintiff’s bed-ridden mother. Word quickly spread that plaintiff appeared to support Spagnola, and not the current mayor that put the police chief in place.

As a result, plaintiff’s supervisors demoted plaintiff from detective to patrol officer with a “walking post” as punishment for plaintiff’s “overt involvement” with the Spagnola campaign. Truth be told, plaintiff did not support the Spagnola campaign, but was instead doing his mother a favor by picking up and delivering the campaign sign.

Plaintiff sued the City of Patterson alleging that his demotion violated his First Amendment rights as incorporated in 42 USC 1983 as a state employee. The federal district court dismissed plaintiff’s case finding that he had not been deprived of any constitutionally protected rights because he had not engaged in any First Amendment conduct. The Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal, concluding that his claim could only be actionable if the City’s action was prompted by plaintiff’s actual, rather than perceived, exercise of his free-speech rights.

The Supreme Court of the United States reversed, holding “When an employer demotes an employee out of a desire to pre­vent the employee from engaging in protected political activity, the employee is entitled to challenge that unlawful action under the First Amendment,” even if the employer was mistaken regarding the employee’s behavior.

In Heffernan, the court explained: “With a few exceptions, the Constitution prohibits a government employer from discharging or demoting an employee because the employee supports a particular political candidate.” The court remanded the case back to the district court for further proceedings.

Following Heffernan, the focus on whether a municipality violates an employee’s First Amendment free speech rights will be based upon the motivation of the municipality rather than the intent of the employee. Municipalities must carefully enact and follow policies that limit or punish political speech by employees or they could face liability.

[1] http://www.supremecourt.gov/.../14-1280_k5fl.pdf