Heffernan v. City of Paterson

PETITIONER: Jeffrey Heffernan
RESPONDENT: City of Paterson
LOCATION: United States District Court for the District of New Jersey

DOCKET NO.: 14-1280
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2016- )
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

CITATION: 578 US (2016)
GRANTED: Oct 01, 2015
ARGUED: Jan 19, 2016
DECIDED: Apr 26, 2016

Ginger D. Anders - Assistant to the Solicitor General, for the United States as amicus curiae for the petitioner
Thomas C. Goldstein - for the respondents
Mark Frost - for the petitioner

Facts of the case

Jeffrey Heffernan was a police officer for the City of Paterson, New Jersey. A fellow police officer observed Heffernan picking up a campaign sign for the mayoral candidate running against the incumbent. When a supervisor confronted him, Heffernan claimed that he was not politically involved, could not vote in the city of Paterson, and was picking up the sign on behalf of his mother. Heffernan was demoted to a walking post because his actions were considered to be “overt involvement in political activities.” Heffernan sued the city of Paterson and claimed that the city had violated his First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and association. The city filed a motion for summary judgment and argued that, since Heffernan had not actually engaged in constitutionally protected speech, the City’s actions had not violated his First Amendment rights. The district court granted the city’s motion for summary judgment because there was no evidence Heffernan associated himself with the political candidate at issue. Heffernan admitted himself that he was not associated with the candidate, and therefore there is no evidence of a violation of his right to freedom of association. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed.


Does the First Amendment prohibit the government from demoting a public employee based on a supervisor’s perception that the employee supports a political candidate?

Media for Heffernan v. City of Paterson

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 19, 2016 in Heffernan v. City of Paterson

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - April 26, 2016 in Heffernan v. City of Paterson

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Breyer has our opinion this morning in case 14-1280, Heffernan versus the City of Paterson, New Jersey.

Stephen G. Breyer:

In this case, which is a Civil Rights Act case, a government official demoted an employee because the official believed that he wrongly, incorrectly believed that the employee had supported a particular candidate for mayor.

Now the question is whether the official's factual mistake makes a critical legal difference even though the employee had not in fact engaged in constitutionally protected speech did his demotion in the words of the Civil Rights statute deprive him of a right secured by the Constitution.

Now the plaintiff, Jeffrey Heffernan, is a policeman.

The defendant, his superiors thought he had gone to the campaign headquarters of a candidate for mayor Lawrence Spagnola in order to pick up and later display a Spagnola campaign sign i.e. to engage in politics.

Because they supported Spagnola's rival they punished him by demoting him.

Now in fact, Heffernan had gone to Spagnola's headquarters to get a sign for his mother who lost her son.

He didn't try to get it for himself, didn't intend to engage in political speech and we take as a given, we have to do that for those purposes here that he did not do so.

Now assuming fact such as these, can Heffernan proceed with his civil rights claim?

The lower courts thought that he could not.

They pointed out that the act prohibits depriving a person of a constitutional right and since Heffernan had not engaged in any First Amendment conduct he could not been deprived of any such right.

It's logical but we don't agree with it.

In our view, the Act applies to an employer who punishes an employee because the employer believes the employee has engaged in conduct that the First Amendment protects, even if the employer is factually mistaken about the conduct.

Drawing guidance from one of our earlier cases Waters v. Churchill, we think that what counts is the employer's motive as applied to the facts as the employer reasonably understood them.

The First Amendment harm at least in respect to the inhibitory effect upon Heffernan and upon other employees is about the same whether Heffernan did or did not himself intend to support Spagnola.

Moreover, the First Amendment itself focuses on government actions, and so our holding closely tracks the text of the Constitution.

For these and related reasons which we set forth in our opinion, we reverse the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit and remand the case for further proceedings on related issues.

Justice Thomas has filed a dissenting opinion in this case, in which Justice Alito joins.