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Decided: June 15, 2015

The Fourth Circuit denied Defendants’ appeal from the district court’s denial of summary judgment, holding that the Plaintiff officers spoke out on corruption as citizens and were therefore protected by the First Amendment.

This appeal arises from the firing of three police officers who raised concerns about mismanagement by the police chief.  Initially, the three officers raised their concerns with the town manager.  When the situation did not improve and the Plaintiffs began to perceive retaliation, they anonymously took their complaints outside of the city.  The Plaintiffs used a disposable phone to call the state Attorney General’s office and the Governor’s office.  A representative from the Governor’s office referred the case to the State Bureau of Investigation (“SBI”).  The police chief ultimately discovered what the Plaintiffs had done and fired all of them.  The Plaintiffs filed suit in April 2012, alleging, among other things, that their First Amendment rights had been violated.  The Defendants moved for summary judgment under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which was ultimately dismissed.  The Defendants appealed the denial of summary judgment.  

To successfully assert a § 1983 claim, a Defendant must show that either no Constitutional right was violated, or that the violated right was not clearly established.  Defendants first contended that the district court had erred when it found that the Plaintiffs had acted as citizens instead of employees.  The Fourth Circuit engaged in the requisite “practical” inquiry into whether the Plaintiffs’ speech had occurred in the normal course of the employees’ daily professional activities.  Ultimately, the Court held that calling the Governor’s office from a disposable phone was not part of the ordinary business of police officers and that the district court had rightly refused summary judgment on this basis.  

Defendants next argued that the Plaintiffs’ speech had not been a cause of their termination.  The Fourth Circuit ruled that this argument was not an issue for appellate review because a material issue of fact existed.   Defendants’ last argument on appeal was that if they had violated at Constitutional right, that the right was not clearly established at the time.  The Court rejected this argument, stating that a citizen’s speech about serious misconduct in police conduct was a clearly established right.  

Plaintiffs also appealed from the district court’s dismissal of their claims against the town of Mocksville.  The disposal of only the claims against the town of Mocksville did not constitute a final judgment, and appellate courts only have jurisdiction over final decisions.  Therefore, the Fourth Circuit held that this issue was not properly before it.

Full Opinion

William H. Yarborough