For government employers, disciplining and terminating employees can be especially difficult. Not only does the public employer face the same challenges in complying with the standard alphabet soup of employment laws that private employers do, including the ADA, ADEA, FMLA, Title VII, etc., they also have the complicated task of considering the application of an employee’s Constitutional rights in making employment decisions. Unfortunately, the protections provided by the constitution to government employees don’t rely on the kinds of “immutable” traits often in issue in the alphabet soup context, which means that determining when constitutional rights could be violated is particularly troublesome.
Recently, in Heffernan v. City of Paterson, the United States Supreme Court brought the analysis applicable to First Amendment retaliation claims closer to your typical alphabet soup case in one small way – focusing on the employer’s intent. In a typical discrimination context, the employer’s intent is key when examining the reason given for the action and the circumstantial evidence that may call that stated reason into question. In short, the question is: was it the employer’s intent to discriminate in disciplining an employee, or was it really the employee’s violation of an employer policy?
In the First Amendment context, employer intent is usually irrelevant or assumed; the focus instead is on whether the speech or activity is personal or on a matter of public interest, whether the employee acted as a citizen or an employee, and how the speech or activity could harm the government’s interests. Heffernan, however, presented the unique situation where the employee contended he didn’t intend to speak or act at all, but the employer punished him for its perception that he had. The Court therefore faced the following question: whose intent is more significant in the constitutional rights context? The Heffernan Court found that it is the employer’s intentions that are critical to determining whether there has been a violation of the employee’s rights.
In reaching this decision, the Court considered the following facts: Jeffrey Heffernan was employed as a police officer for the City of Paterson in 2005 under Chief of Police James Wittig. Both the Chief and Heffernan’s direct supervisor had been appointed to their positions by the Mayor, who was running for reelection. During the campaign, Heffernan’s colleagues spotted him at campaign headquarters talking with campaign workers and holding a campaign sign for the Mayor’s opponent, who was a known friend of Heffernan. When word reached his supervisors, Heffernan was demoted from a detective position to a patrol officer position, and given an undesirable patrol post, allegedly to punish his involvement in the opposition’s campaign. Heffernan denied being involved in the campaign, and denied supporting the candidate, stating that he was only picking the sign up for his mother, who was bedridden and could not do it for herself.
In response to his demotion, Heffernan filed a lawsuit against the City contending that he had been demoted because the City believed he engaged in conduct that constituted protected activity, even though he denied that he had intended to speak or act.
Prior case law is very clear that government employers are prohibited from making an employment decision because an employee supports a particular political candidate. However, Heffernan was contending that he didn’t actually support the oppositional candidate, but the City mistakenly believed he did. The City’s position in the litigation was that, since he hadn’t intended to engage in protected activity, his activity wasn’t protected…and its demotion decision could therefore only violate his rights if in fact he actively supported the candidate.
Ultimately, the Court concluded that “the government’s reason for demoting Heffernan is what counts…When an employer demotes an employee out of a desire to prevent the employee from engaging in political activity that the First Amendment protects (even if the employee did not intend to engage in that activity), the employee is entitled to challenge that unlawful action under the First Amendment…” Whether the employer has correctly or incorrectly deduced the employee’s motives in engaging in particular behavior, the Court opined that the same constitutional harm would result – an employee would be demoted or terminated for appearing to engage in protected activity, thereby discouraging other employees from engaging in what should be protected activity. Because the harm would result regardless of the accuracy of the employer’s belief, the employer’s reason for the employment action must govern in determining if a First Amendment cause of action and violation exists.
Unfortunately for Heffernan, his fight with the City will continue on, as the Supreme Court did not reach the ultimate question of whether his rights had been violated. To the contrary, the Court’s decision remanded the case back to the trial court to determine whether or not Heffernan’s demotion occurred pursuant to an existing neutral policy prohibiting police officers from overt involvement in any political campaign, and whether such a policy complies with constitutional standards generally.
The immediate take-away for government employers and elected officials (and the HR personnel who love them), in light of the Heffernan decision should be on the reinforcement of what we know already from other employment discrimination cases: we must examine the reason for an employment decision before it is made to ensure there is no protected classification or protected activity motivating the decision. Even if the employer is wrong about what the employee intended by his actions, a decision motivated by an intent to punish what would otherwise be protected activity could violate the constitution.