Thursday, August 11, 2016
The Seventh Circuit ruled today in Kristofek v. Village of Orland Hills that a police officer's allegation of official misconduct in the higher ranks was protected speech under the First Amendment.
The ruling reverses the district court on the point and on its companion ruling that the police chief enjoyed qualified immunity. But the court rejected the officer's municipal liability claim.
The case arose when a part-time police officer, Kristofek, complained to colleagues and then to the FBI that a driver that he cited and detained may have been released, and charges dropped, because of official misconduct. (The driver's mother, a former township trustee, successfully intervened with local politicians and the police on behalf of her son. Kristofek thought that this might constitute official misconduct, based on a misconduct training that he attended.) Police Chief Scully then fired Kristofek.
Kristofek sued, arguing that his termination in retaliation for protected speech violated the First Amendment, and that the township was liable under Monell. The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants.
The Seventh Circuit reversed on the First Amendment claim. The court ruled that Kristofek spoke as a private citizen on a matter of public concern when he complained to his colleagues and to the FBI, and that the Pickering balance favored his speech. The court also denied qualified immunity to Scully.
But the court rejected Kristofek's Monell claim, because Scully didn't have authority to unilaterally fire Kristofek or to set department firing policy.
The ruling sends the case back for proceedings consistent with the opinion. But it also assigns the case to a new judge.