Legal Alerts May 02, 2016

Demotion Based on Mistaken Belief Deprives Public Employee of Constitutional Rights

U.S. Supreme Court Decision in Case Involving Political Campaigning Accusations

Demotion Based on Mistaken Belief Deprives Public Employee of Constitutional Rights

A government agency violated the constitutional rights of an employee who was demoted based on the mistaken belief that he violated the agency’s policy, the U.S. Supreme Court held. In a 6-2 decision last week, the Court overturned a lower court ruling and found in favor of the employee, who was accused of engaging in political campaigning.

In Heffernan v. City of Paterson, Heffernan brought a civil rights claim against the City for violating his First Amendment Rights. At the time, Heffernan was employed by the Office of the Chief of the Police. The chief was appointed by the mayor, who was up for reelection against Heffernan’s friend. Heffernan alleged that he was demoted after his supervisor heard that Heffernan was carrying campaign signs and talking to the campaign manager outside his friend’s campaign office. Heffernan argued that his supervisor was mistaken, that he had not been involved in any political activity, and that he was merely picking up a campaign sign for his mother because she had asked for one.

The trial court ruled against Heffernan finding that he had not engaged in any First Amendment conduct and the appellate court affirmed, emphasizing that a civil rights claim would only be actionable if the demotion was prompted by Heffernan’s actual, rather than perceived, exercise of constitutional rights.  

The Supreme Court overturned the appellate court, concluding that the employer’s motive for demoting Heffernan was the dispositive factor. Although the demotion was based on a perceived exercise of a protected right, the employer was not protected merely because the perception turned out to be mistaken.

Interestingly, the majority did not address the constitutionality of the Department’s policy prohibiting overt involvement in a political campaign and remanded the matter to the appellate court. That is, the Court’s opinion rests solely on the decision to demote the employee.

In the dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justice Samuel Alito,  took issue with allowing an employee to recover for a violation of his rights that he conceded he did not exercise — reasoning that if he did not exercise his First Amendment rights, then his First Amendment rights could not be violated.

The implications of this case remain unclear, but it appears to expand the scope of liability for employers because factual mistakes are not a defense. Adverse actions, whether based in factual truth or mistaken beliefs, can now form the basis of a civil rights claim against employers.

This case serves as a reminder that there are circumstances where public employers need to be mindful of their employees’ expressive activities.

If you have questions about the opinion or how it might impact your agency, contact the authors of this Legal Alert listed at the right in the firm’s Labor & Employment practice group, or your BB&K attorney.

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Disclaimer: BB&K Legal Alerts are not intended as legal advice. Additional facts or future developments may affect subjects contained herein. Seek the advice of an attorney before acting or relying upon any information in this communiqué.

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