A federal appeals court overturned a $250,000 jury verdict Tuesday in a civil rights case by a Eugene, Oregon police officer, who said he was removed from the K-9 team in retaliation for repeated complaints abut work-related safety issues.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said when a public employee reports of safety concerns to supervisors he or she is not speaking as a private citizen and therefore is not entitled to First Amendment projection.
“The first amendment shields public employees from employment retaliation for their protected speech activities,” said Judge Arthur Alarcon. But a public employee’s speech is not protected by the First Amendment when it is made pursuant to the employee’s official job responsibilities, according to Alarcon.
The city of Eugene and its police chief were appealing the refusal of the Oregon trial judge to set aside the jury verdict in favor of Brian Hagen. The appeals court ruled for the city and ordered the verdict to overturned because the “evidence presented to the jury does not reasonably permit the conclusion that Hagen established a First Amendment retaliation claim,” wrote Alarcon.
Hagen had worked for the department since 1998 and joined the K-9 unit in 2004. He sometimes worked on the SWAT team and saw problems with officers negligently discharging firearms. In one instance a sergeant who supervised the K-9 team was shot by a SWAT sniper during an operation.
Hagen complained to his supervisor about the problems over a series of problems with accidental weapons disharges, until 2008 when he was transferred out of the K-9 unit to a patrol job.
Hagen believed he was retaliated against for airing his concerns. He sued in 2010 naming the city, the police department, Chief Peter Kerns and two supervisors.
Following a 2012 trial, a jury awarded Hagen $50,000 in compensatory damages and $200,000 in punitive damages.
The verdict was reversed and the court ordered a verdict in favor of the city and police department instead.
Case: Hagen v. City of Eugene, No. 12-35492