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Can An Employer Fire You for Talking About an Election?

Dec. 18, 2017

The First Amendment to the Constitution famously protects the individual rights of free speech and assembly. The U.S. Supreme Court has long held that these First Amendment protections extend to government employees who engage in lawful political activities. If a government worker is demoted or fired based on exercising his or her constitutionally protected rights, it is considered an illegal retaliatory discharge under federal civil rights law.

Yahnke v. Kane County

The Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago recently reinstated a retaliatory discharge lawsuit brought by a former deputy sheriff in Kane County, Illinois. The deputy had worked in the sheriff’s office for 20 years, rising to the rank of sergeant. When the incumbent sheriff retired in 2006, the deputy considered running in the election to replace him. Ultimately the deputy decided not to run, and another deputy won the election.

Just before leaving office, the outgoing sheriff approved the deputy’s request to take a part-time second job as the police chief of a village that straddled the border between Kane County and DeKalb County. A few months later, the deputy was injured in the line of duty and was placed on disability leave. During this time, the new sheriff said the deputy would also not be allowed to actively work as the village police chief.

While on disability, the deputy hosted a social event at his home for the village police officers. He told the group he was once again thinking about running for sheriff at the next election. Shortly thereafter the sheriff, acting on legal advice from the State’s Attorney’s office, ordered the deputy to cease his role with the village police department.

But the sheriff did not stop there. He ordered an internal affairs investigation into whether the deputy had illegally continued to perform work for the village while on disability. The sheriff subsequently claimed the deputy had been “dishonest” in his subsequent testimony to the investigators. Consequently, the sheriff fired the deputy.

The deputy sued Kane County for illegal retaliatory discharge. Among other claims, the deputy alleged he was fired because he had openly discussed running against the sheriff in the next election-a protected political activity under the First Amendment. In support of his claim, the deputy cited the deposition testimony of an under-sheriff, who recalled the sheriff telling him he planned to fire the deputy-rather than impose a lesser penalty for the alleged dishonesty-and then stated, “He thinks he’s going to run for Sheriff against me some day.”

Despite this evidence, the trial judge granted summary judgment to the county. On appeal, the Seventh Circuit reversed that decision and returned the case for trial. Without ruling on the underlying merits of the case, the appeals court said the under-sheriff’s testimony could allow a jury to infer that the sheriff opted to fire the deputy rather than impose a lesser sanction because the deputy “expressed a desire to run against the Sheriff, and that the proffered reasons were not the actual motivation for the discharge.”

Have You Been Fired for Exercising Your Legal Rights?

There are many situations that may give rise to an illegal retaliatory discharge. If you have been fired because you attempted to exercise your constitutional or legal rights, you need to speak with a DuPage County retaliatory discharge lawyer as soon as possible. Contact the Law Office of Michael T. Smith if you need assistance with any type of employment discrimination claim.