An Oakdale police officer’s first amendment rights were affirmed by a local jury earlier this week, after a long dispute over disciplinary action and wrongful termination as a result of comments he made about a police chief. The comments were made in the context of a union meeting, when members took a vote of “no confidence” against the chief. Shortly after the vote was taken, the officer was disciplined and fired. He was reinstated to his job after an arbitration proceeding and was awarded some limited damages for lost wages at that time.
The police chief was also accused of harassing officers, including the one who brought this lawsuit.
Speech by government employees is particularly well protected when the comments are made on matters of public concern. In this case, the officer was commenting on the fitness of his chief during a union meeting which the jury found was a matter of genuine public concern.
The jury also found after reviewing all of the evidence that the officer would not have been punished but for the comments that he made at the meeting, which means that the punishment was certainly retaliation for his comments.
It is not clear at this time who will be paying the $184,000 in damages to the officer. The lawsuit implicated only the chief personally, since the city had been dismissed as a defendant earlier this year. The attorney representing the chief says that taxpayers in Oakdale would not be on the hook, but also implied that the city was standing behind the chief in these accusations and might pay on his behalf. He also said that the chief is considering an appeals process to overturn the verdict.
More information about wrongful termination and retaliation against Minnesota employees can be found on our law firm’s website.
Source: Minneapolis Star Tribune, “Oakdale cop who sued boss gets $184,000” Dan Browning, Sept. 12, 2012.