Wednesday, April 21, 2021
The First Circuit ruled last week that a Massachusetts police department did not violate an officer's free-speech rights by taking disciplinary action against the officer after the officer first reported another officer's misconduct, and later made threats and false claims to his superior and an independent investigator. The court ruled that the department would've taken the same disciplinary action regardless of the officer's protected speech.
The case, Gutwill v. City of Framingham, started when officer Matthew Gutwill filed a complaint against another officer that the other officer gave false testimony at a suppression hearing. The department concluded that Gutwill had "good cause" to make the complaint, but that the allegations were unsubstantiated.
The department later rotated Gutwill out of his DEA taskforce position and made other changes that affected his overtime and privileges. Gutwill complained about those changes to senior officers, including a call to the department chief, where Gutwill made threatening comments, told the chief that federal agents had recorded the deputy chief on a wiretap as part of a drug investigation, and told the chief that he (Gutwill) had reported his concerns to the FBI.
The chief reported the call, and the department appointed an independent investigator. The investigator initially concluded that Gutwill had not been truthful in denying his threats to the chief. The department placed Gutwill on administrative leave pending the completion of the investigation. The investigator later concluded that Gutwill lied to her (the investigator), too, about his (Gutwill's) statements about the deputy chief. In response, the department suspended Gutwill for five days without pay for dishonesty and conduct unbecoming an officer. An independent hearing officer concluded that Gutwill violated department regulations on honesty and conduct.
Gutwill sued. The district court ruled against him, and the First Circuit affirmed. The court held that the department demonstrated that it would've taken the same disciplinary actions whether or not Gutwill engaged in protected speech. The court said that the chief had good cause to report the call with Gutwill, and that the hearing officer's conclusion that Gutwill violated department rules was "an adequate, non-retaliatory basis for Gutwill's discipline." It also noted that the investigator's conclusion that Gutwill was dishonest with her provided yet another independent reason for Gutwill's discipline.