Monday, February 12, 2018
In its opinion in Perez v. City of Roseville, a panel of the Ninth Circuit reversed a district judge's granting of summary judgment to the government on a constitutional challenge by Janelle Perez to her termination from the City of Roseville after an internal affairs investigation into her "romantic relationship" with a fellow officer. The investigation noted that both officers "are married and have young children."
Authored by Judge Reinhardt, the opinion noted that its conclusion was required by Thorne v. City of El Segundo, 726 F.2d 459 (9th Cir. 1983), in which the Ninth Circuit held that the city violated Thorne's constitutional rights when it relied on her private, non-job-related sexual conduct as a clerk-typist in refusing to hire her as an officer, without “any showing that [her] private, off-duty personal activities ... [had] an impact upon [her] on-the-job performance,” or contravened “specific policies with narrow implementing regulations.” Likewise, Roseville failed to "introduce sufficient evidence that Perez’s affair had any meaningful impact upon her job performance."
Interestingly, the Ninth Circuit identifies a circuit split on the issue: We recognize that, since Thorne, at least two other circuits have adopted rules that appear to be in some tension with our case. See Coker v. Whittington, 858 F.3d 304, 306 (5th Cir. 2017) (concluding Constitution not violated where two sheriff’s deputies were fired for moving in with each other’s wives before finalizing divorce from their current wives because the Sheriff’s policies were supported by a rational basis); Seegmiller v. LaVerkin City, 528 F.3d 762, 770 (10th Cir. 2008) (upholding termination of officer on basis of extramarital affair under rational basis test because there is no “fundamental liberty interest ‘to engage in a private act of consensual sex’”). > However, the Ninth Circuit rejects the "approach taken by the Fifth and Tenth Circuits" for two reasons. First, there is the "binding precedent" of Thorne:
Because the State’s actions in this case “intrude on the core of a person’s constitutionally protected privacy and associational interests,” we must analyze them under “heightened scrutiny.” Thorne, 726 F.2d at 470. Moreover, even if we were to agree that the Department’s action here need only satisfy rational basis review, Thorne explains that it cannot survive any level of scrutiny without either a showing of a negative impact on job performance or violation of a constitutionally permissible, narrowly drawn regulation. Id. at 471. Under our precedent, the Department must do more than cite a broad, standardless rule against “conduct unbecoming an officer.”
Second, the "Fifth and Tenth Circuits fail to appreciate the impact of Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003), on the jurisprudence of the constitutional right to sexual autonomy."
"Lawrence did much more than merely conclude that Texas’ anti-sodomy law failed the rational basis test. Instead, it recognized that intimate sexual conduct represents an aspect of the substantive liberty protected by the Due Process Clause. As such, the constitutional infirmity in Texas’ law stemmed from neither its mere irrationality nor its burdening of a fundamental right to engage in homosexual conduct (or even private consensual sexual conduct, Rather, Texas’ law ran afoul of the Constitution’s protection of substantive liberty by imposing a special stigma of moral disapproval on intimate same-sex relationships in particular. As the Court explained, the liberty protected by the Due Process Clause must extend equally to all intimate sexual conduct between consenting adults, regardless of whether they are of the same sex or not, married or unmarried. . . . Lawrence makes clear that the State may not stigmatize private sexual conduct simply because the majority has “traditionally viewed a particular practice,” such as extramarital sex, “as immoral.” Thus, without a showing of adverse job impact or violation of a narrow, constitutionally valid departmental rule, the Constitution forbids the Department from expressing its moral disapproval of Perez’s extramarital affair by terminating her employment on that basis.
Thus, the Ninth Circuit holds that Thorne, decided 20 years before Lawrence was correct and the Fifth and Tenth Circuit opinions, both decided after Lawrence, do not give Lawrence proper effect.
Concurring, Judge Tashima stresses that Perez was a probationary police officer and thus the government need not have provided reasons. However, when the government did provide reasons "those reasons all arose in such short order after the internal affairs review that a reasonable inference may be drawn that they may have been pretextual." Additionally, the majority opinion held that the government had no right to qualified immunity because the rights were clearly established, again relying on Thorne, decided in 1983.
The majority panel opinion rejected a procedural due process claim and a gender discrimination claim.The court thus reversed the summary judgment in favor of the government and remanded the case for further proceedings given the factual disputes regarding the actual reasons Perez was termination.