Decided: July 8, 2016
The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s ruling.
Police officer Randall Brickey was fired from his position with the Saltville Police Department because of comments he made as a candidate for town council that were critical of his employer and its Police Chief, Rob Hall. In response, Brickey filed suit under 42 U.S.C § 1983 for retaliatory discharge in violation of the First Amendment. The district court denied Hall qualified immunity, and this interlocutory appeal followed.
In early 2012, Brickey decided to run for Town Council and discussed his plan with Hall, the Police Chief. Hall had recently taken over the department and instituted procedures to solve the well-publicized problems of financial mismanagement, officer misconduct, and lack of professionalism. Hall indicated to Brickey that the campaign wouldn’t be a problem as long as Brickey did not disparage the department in contravention of departmental policy. Brickey agreed but later made statements to the public that the department was mismanaging the budget and misusing taxpayers’ money. Hall investigated the statements, informed Brickey they were in contravention of the department’s policies, and dismissed him from his position.
An official is entitled to qualified immunity unless the allegations underlying the claim, if true, substantiate a violation of a federal statutory or constitutional right and this violation was of a clearly established right of which a reasonable person would have known. Hall does not challenge the district court’s holding that Brickey has properly alleged a constitutional violation, but instead contends that the right Brickey asserts was not clearly established in 2012 when Brickey was terminated.
A First Amendment retaliation claim poses three questions: (1) whether the public employee was speaking as a citizen upon a matter of public concern or as an employee about a matter of personal interest; (2) whether the employee’s interest in speaking upon the matter of public concern outweighed the government’s interest in providing effective and efficient services to the public; and (3) whether the employee’s speech was a substantial factor in the employee’s termination decision. The third question is not in dispute. Instead, the parties did not provide any case to the Fourth Circuit that would have clearly warned Hall that terminating Brickey for his comments would violate his First Amendment rights. Instead, case law precedent grants broad discretion to police officials to limit speech when discipline is at stake.
Because it was debatable at the time of Brickey’s dismissal that his speech interests as a citizen outweighed Hall’s interests as a public employer, the Fourth Circuit concluded that Hall is entitled to qualified immunity.
Accordingly, the Court reversed the district court’s ruling.