Heffernan v. City of Paterson

Summarized by:

  • Court: United States Supreme Court
  • Area(s) of Law: First Amendment
  • Date Filed: April 26, 2016
  • Case #: 14-1280
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: 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.
  • Full Text Opinion

Employers may be held liable under the First Amendment and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for demoting an employee in an attempt to prevent them from engaging in political activity protected by the First Amendment, even if the employer is factually mistaken about the nature of their employee’s activity.

Petitioner worked as a police detective when he picked up a campaign sign for his mother that endorsed a mayoral candidate running against the incumbent mayor, who had appointed the Chief of Police as well as Petitioner’s direct supervisor. Fellow officers saw Petitioner at one of the candidate’s distribution centers holding the sign and the following day Petitioner’s supervisor demoted Petitioner to patrol officer in retaliation for what the supervisor incorrectly perceived as involvement with the campaign. Petitioner filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in federal court. The district court found that Petitioner’s First Amendment rights were not violated because he had not engaged in protected conduct and that conduct protected by the First Amendment must be actual and not perceived to be actionable. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. The Supreme Court disagreed, holding that employees are entitled to bring claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the First Amendment when their employers demote them and intend to demote them in order to prevent them from engaging in political activity protected by the First Amendment, regardless of whether the employer was mistaken about the employees conduct. The Supreme Court found that the First Amendment’s textual focus on government conduct and concern about discouraging individuals from engaging in protected speech justified holding employers liable. It was further noted that the chilling effect on protected speech is the same with or without a factual mistake on behalf of the employer regarding the conduct of their employees. REVERSED and REMANDED.

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