Earlier this week, the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments in a truly fascinating employment law case involving a veteran police officer, allegations of retaliation and a case of mistaken political support.
According to the facts, the officer was employed by the police department in Paterson, New Jersey for over two decades. He was eventually promoted to the rank of detective and given the otherwise enviable position of working in the office of the police chief.
Sometime in 2006, the officer was asked by his bedridden mother to secure a campaign sign expressing support for a candidate who was then seeking to unseat the incumbent mayor of Paterson in the upcoming election.
The officer later went to the campaign office of the candidate in question while off-duty, where he was observed holding the sign he had secured for his mother and talking to various people.
Shortly thereafter, he leaned that despite the fact that he was neither involved in this campaign nor eligible to vote in Paterson, he was being demoted to walking patrol duty in retaliation for what officials believed was his show of support for the mayor’s rival. This demotion, in turn, meant longer hours, less pay and a sizeable hit to his pension.
The officer ultimately filed a federal lawsuit alleging that his rights under the First Amendment, which prohibits government at any level from taking retaliatory actions against employees for exercising their right to free speech and association, had been violated.
While he was awarded over $100,000 in damages by a jury, the verdict was ultimately set aside after the presiding judge recused himself. Thereafter, the new presiding judge dismissed the case on the grounds that since the officer was never actually campaigning for the mayoral candidate, he did not technically exercise his First Amendment rights, and, as such, no violation of his rights could have ever occurred.
The decision was subsequently affirmed by a federal appellate court.
In his arguments before SCOTUS, the attorney representing the officer argued that the issue wasn’t whether the officer actually exercised his First Amendment rights, but rather whether the motive of the government higher-ups was to punish him for what they believed was his speech.
It will be interesting to see how SCOTUS ultimately rules in this case, which will be decided sometime this summer. Experts have argued that a finding against the officer will mean that government workers everywhere will have to live in constant fear of having their employers mistaking their actions as being political.
Stay tuned for updates.
If you believe that an employer has retaliated against you in any capacity, consider speaking with an experienced legal professional to learn more about the law and your options.