U.S. Supreme Court holds, in matter of first impression, police officer is protected by 1st Amendment even though he did not engage in protected activity

Heffernan v. City of Paterson 14-1280 (U.S. April 26, 2016)

This is a First Amendment in employment §1983 cause of action which appears to be a case of first impression. The United States Supreme Court held that even though a police officer did not engage in protected political activity, the City’s mistaken belief that he did and subsequent retaliation is still actionable under the First Amendment.

Heffernan was a police officer working in the office of Paterson, New Jersey’s chief of police. Both the chief of police and Heffernan’s supervisor had been appointed by Paterson’s incumbent mayor, who was running for re-election against Lawrence Spagnola.  Heffernan was not personally involved in Spagnola’s campaign.  However, in order to assist his bedridden mother, he picked up a Spagnolia campaign yard flyer and delivered it to her.  Heffernan, however, was spotted holding the flyer on his way to deliver it.  The next day, Heffernan’s supervisors demoted him from detective to patrol officer as punishment for his “overt involvement” in Spagnola’s campaign. Heffernan filed suit, however his claims were dismissed because technically he did not engage in any protected political speech. The City’s mistake that he engaged in political activity was therefore not actionable according to the trial and appellate courts.

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 first assumed Heffernan’s activities were not any of the noted exceptions. The Court then noted that neither the text of the First Amendment, §1983 nor the case law actually answer the question presented. After analyzing the purpose and rights under the First Amendment and the implication of imposing liability based on a mistake, the Court ultimately determined that “[w]e conclude that … the government’s reason for demoting Heffernan is what counts here. When an employer demotes an employee out of a desire to prevent the employee from engaging in political activity that the First Amendment protects, the employee is entitled to challenge that unlawful action under the First Amendment and 42 U. S. C. §1983—even if, as here, the employer makes a factual mistake about the employee’s behavior.”  As a result, the case is reversed and remanded for further processing.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. BREYER, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and KENNEDY, GINSBURG, SOTOMAYOR, and KAGAN, JJ., joined. THOMAS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which ALITO, J., joined.