Think twice before running an errand for your bedridden mother.

Police Officer Jeffrey Heffernan was demoted from his position in Paterson, New Jersey because he was seen picking up a yard sign in support of a candidate for mayor.  The problem was that the candidate was the wrong candidate.  Officer Heffernan’s boss supported the other candidate. When word got back to Officer Heffernan’s supervisors about this, they punished him with the demotion.  Heffernan sued, alleging that this was retaliation for his involvement in protected political activity.  After all….can’t a guy pick up a yard sign???

But here’s the weird part of this story.  We still don’t know who Heffernan supported for mayor.  He was not picking up that yard sign for himself. He was running an errand for his bedridden mother, who asked him to get the yard sign.  We don’t know who Heffernan supported for mayor, we only know who his mom supported.  So the lawyer for the city argued that Heffernan was not engaging in “protected activity.” He was not exercising his constitutional rights when he picked up the yard sign.  He was just being a good son.

The problem for the city was that the boss thought that Heffernan was supporting the wrong candidate, and that’s why the demotion.  In other words, the boss’s motive was tainted, even though it was based on a faulty premise. So who wins here?  Does the cop lose his case because he was not really exercising his rights? Or does the city lose because the boss had a bad motive?

This case worked its way all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of Heffernan 7-2.  Justice Thomas dissented, noting that “demoting a dutiful son who aids his elderly, bedridden mother may be callous, but it is not unconstitutional.”  But the majority disagreed. Key Quote:

We conclude that, as in [Waters v. Churchill—a 1994 SCOTUS case] the government’s reason for demoting Heffernan is what counts here.  When an employer demotes an employee out of a desire to prevent the employee from engaging in political activity that the First Amendment protects, the employee is entitled to challenge that unlawful action under the First Amendment and 42 U.S.C. Section 1983—even if, as here, the employer makes a factual mistake about the employee’s behavior.

Decisions about public employment should always be based on job related, non-discriminatory, non-retaliatory reasons.  So before you decide to recommend termination, nonrenewal, or any significant adverse action….check your motives.

The case is Heffernan v. City of Paterson, decided by the Supreme Court of the United States on April 26, 2016.


File this one under:  CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS