Court Upholds Protection Of Union Official’s Speech Against Police Chief

In a victory for the free speech rights of public union officials, the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal revived a claim by a police officer that the City of Sierra Madre violated his First Amendment free speech rights.  In the Ellins v. City of Sierra Madre case, plaintiff John Ellins, a police officer for the City of Sierra Madre, and President of the Sierra Madre Police Association, led a no-confidence vote of the police officers’ union against the Chief of Police, Marilyn Diaz.  Diaz subsequently delayed a five percent salary increase for Ellins.

The appeals court held that a jury could find that Ellins spoke in his capacity as a private citizen, not as a public employee, when he led the vote of no confidence.  The court noted that collective personnel grievances raised by unions may be matters of public concern.  In this case, the police union’s concerns were with the police chief’s leadership style and other department-wide problems, not private grievances.

The appeals court also held that a jury could reasonably find that delaying and denying a portion of a pay increase was designed to retaliate against and chill Ellins’ political expression.  The court rejected the police chief’s claim of “qualified immunity” as a government official, since she acted unreasonably in light of clearly established law.

By Russell Naymark

Legal Developments