Motive is Key in Retaliation Case under Section 1983

In a recent case, a public employee was demoted by his supervisor because of his perceived support of a local political candidate, creating a case of unlawful retaliation. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned a prior federal court decision in this case. The U.S. Supreme Court held that a public employee may claim a violation of constitutional rights under Section 1983 where there is an improper motive. In this case, the employee showed that the supervisor took an adverse action against the employee based on an improper motive, even though the supervisor made factual mistakes regarding the employee’s conduct. This decision changes how such retaliation claims are brought against public employers.

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Public Employer’s Motive Is Essential Factor in Determining if an Employee’s Constitutional Rights Were Violated

The U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment generally prohibits government officials from terminating or demoting public employees because of their engagement in political activity that is constitutionally protected. For example, with limited exceptions, public employers cannot dismiss or retaliate against employees who support a particular political candidate or political party.

In April 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court decided a case in which Jeffrey Heffernan, a police officer in Paterson, New Jersey, was demoted. The demotion occurred because his supervisor incorrectly believed that he had supported a particular candidate in the city’s mayoral election. Heffernan brought a lawsuit in federal court claiming that he was illegally demoted for a political action constituting a protected activity. Heffernan argued that his supervisor had deprived him of a right secured by the Constitution. The lower court ruled against Heffernan because such court found that he had not actually engaged in any protected activity. However, the U.S. Supreme court disagreed and reversed that ruling.

In the case of Heffernan v. City of Paterson, New Jersey, Heffernan’s bedridden mother asked Heffernan to pick up a campaign sign for Lawrence Spagnola, a candidate for mayor running against the incumbent, Jose Torres. Torres had appointed the city’s police chief as well as Heffernan’s supervisor. Word quickly spread throughout the police force that Heffernan had picked up a Spagnola sign. The next day, Heffernan was demoted from detective to patrol officer. Heffernan’s supervisor demoted him because of his perceived support for Spagnola. However, Heffernan was not involved in Spagnola’s campaign. He merely picked up the campaign sign for his mother. Heffernan’s supervisors made a factual mistake regarding his activity.

U.S. Supreme Court Reverses Federal Court Decision

In Heffernan v. City of Paterson, New Jersey, with a 6-2 opinion, the Supreme Court disagreed with the lower court and reversed. In this case, Heffernan’s employer made a factual mistake. The Supreme Court found that it was the motive of the supervisor, and the facts as understood by the employer, that mattered. The Supreme Court concluded that it was the employer’s reason for demoting Heffernan that mattered for purposes of determining any violation of the law under Section 1983.

Even though his employer made a factual mistake about Heffernan’s conduct, Heffernan was nevertheless entitled to challenge his employer’s action. This was because his employer wanted to prevent him from engaging in a protected activity. To prevail, an employee such as Heffernan must prove an improper motive by the employer.

Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Alito, dissented in the Heffernan case. The dissent argued that Heffernan would actually have to engage in a protected activity in the first place in order to sustain his claim. Heffernan’s perceived support of Spagnola’s campaign was not sufficient, according to the dissent. Because Heffernan was not actually engaged in any constitutionally protected activity, these justices believed that the employee had no cause of action under Section 1983. The justices contended that the demotion of Heffernan by his supervisor might be callous, misguided or wrong, but not unconstitutional.

After Heffernan, a public employee is not required to show that he actually engaged in a protected activity in order to support a claim of retaliation under Section 1983. Instead, where the employer make a factual mistake regarding the employee’s conduct, the employee must show that the employer took adverse action against him based on an improper motive.

Our Employment Lawyers Handle Retaliation Cases

Employment laws can be challenged, are redefined, and evolve accordingly. If you wish to know more about the employment law practice of Kilgore & Kilgore, including retaliation cases, check out the many articles we have written by clicking here Employment Law Articles. If you wish to have an employment lawyer review the facts of your case for free, click here and submit a Contact Us form Contact Kilgore & Kilgore.

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