Federal Appeals Court rejects First Amendment claims from fired Mocksville police officer

  • The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has rejected a First Amendment retaliation lawsuit from a fired Mocksville police officer.
  • Appellate judges agreed with a trial judge who ruled for Mocksville over fired officer Brian Hill.
  • The town disbanded its police department in 2021, the year after Hill filed suit.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a trial court ruling against a former Mocksville police officer. The officer argued he had been fired after complaining about police corruption and mismanagement.

In an unsigned opinion released Thursday, the 4th Circuit affirmed U.S. Chief District Judge Thomas Schroeder’s December 2021 ruling favoring Mocksville over former officer Brian Hill.

Had Hill won, he could not have returned to the Mocksville police. The town board voted unanimously in May 2021 to disband its police department. The Davie County County Sheriff’s Office took over law enforcement duties in the town that summer.

Hill brought a First Amendment retaliation claim in 2020 against Mocksville, its police chief, and the town manager.

“It is well established that, ‘in order for an adverse employment action to violate a
public employee’s First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, it must be the case (1)
that the employee was speaking as a citizen upon a matter of public concern rather than as
an employee about a matter of personal interest; (2) that his interest in speaking upon the
matter of public concern outweighed the government’s interest in providing effective and
efficient services to the public; and (3) that his speech was a substantial factor in the
employer’s decision to take action against him,’” according to the order.

That three-part test stems from a 4th Circuit precedent in the 1998 case McVey v. Stacy.

“The district court considered the three-prong test and concluded that Hill was
speaking as a private citizen when he spoke to the Town Board members on his own time,” according to the order. “The court also concluded that at least some of Hill’s speech was on a matter of public concern sufficient to satisfy the first prong. Viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Hill, the court also concluded that Hill’s interest in speaking about allegedly illegal matters and inefficiency within the police department outweighed the Town’s interest in promoting efficient public service. Thus, the court determined he satisfied the second prong.”

“But the court concluded that Hill ultimately failed at the third prong of the analysis
concerning causation,” the 4th Circuit order explained. “Assuming, without deciding that Hill’s speech was a substantial and motivating factor for his termination, the court granted summary judgment in favor of the Town because the Town demonstrated by a preponderance of the evidence that it would have made the same employment decision absent the protected conduct.”

In other words, Mocksville would have fired Hill regardless of his comments to the town board.

“On appeal, Hill argues that the district court applied the incorrect test in analyzing
the third prong and also asks us to turn from our precedent to create a new standard by
forgoing part of the First Amendment retaliation causation analysis. But Hill’s arguments
reflect a misunderstanding of our case law,” the order continued.

The third “prong” of the test in Hill’s case required two steps, based on a 1977 U.S. Supreme Court precedent. “In that case, the Supreme Court outlined the test courts use to determine whether a public employee was unconstitutionally discharged for exercising free speech rights.”

“The employee has the initial burden of showing that his conduct was constitutionally protected, and that the conduct was a ‘substantial’ or ‘motivating factor’ in the adverse employment decision,” the 4th Circuit order explained. “But if the employee meets that initial burden, the burden shifts to the public employer to show by a preponderance of the evidence that it would have reached the same employment result even in the absence of the protected speech.”

“We have not strayed from this legal standard,” the order added. “And once we apply the test, the record supports the district court’s grant of summary judgment. A reasonable jury could not have found the requisite rigorous causation requirement satisfied in light of Hill’s numerous personnel complaints, infractions and other incidents, most significantly his surreptitious recording of his co-workers in violation of the police department’s policy prior to his termination.”

Judges Paul Niemeyer, Marvin Quattlebaum, and William Traxler reached their decision without holding oral arguments in the case.