The plaintiff in Heffernan v. City of Paterson, New Jersey, et al., did not engage in protected activity. Jeffrey Heffernan’s employer, however, thought he had and demoted him.
Heffernan sued claiming retaliation, and both the trial court and the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the employer by holding that because Heffernan had not actually engaged in protected conduct, his demotion was not unlawful. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed, finding that the employer’s motive, not the employee’s actual behavior, determines whether retaliation has occurred.
Heffernan worked as a police officer for Paterson. The chief of police and Heffernan’s supervisor were appointed by the city’s mayor, who was locked in a re-election contest. Heffernan played no role in the election, but picked up a campaign sign for the mayor’s opponent on behalf of his bedridden mother. Heffernan’s supervisors found out and demoted him. Heffernan sued, claiming that the city wrongly retaliated against him in violation of the First Amendment.
The city contended it had not violated the amendment. Because Heffernan did not actually take sides in the election, he was not protected from his employer’s mistaken belief that he had done so, the trial court and 3rd Circuit found. But the Supreme Court reversed. Heffernan v. City of Paterson, N.J., et al., No. 14-1280 (April 26, 2016).
Impact: An employer’s improper motive determines whether an employment action is unlawful. Employers must carefully analyze their employment decisions to ensure that they are not influenced by unlawful motives.
Mark T. Kobata and Marty Denis are partners at the law firm Barlow, Kobata and Denis, which has offices in Beverly Hills, California, and Chicago. Comment below, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.