In Briggs v. Potter County, a federal court of appeals addressed a political retaliation claim involving correctional officers at a county jail in Pennsylvania after a contentious primary election that involved their boss, the chief deputy sheriff.
Hunt and Briggs—both correctional officers at the jail—ran against Drake, the incumbent Chief Deputy Sheriff. Drake had recently retired from the Pennsylvania State Police and was appointed as Chief Deputy Sheriff, which was how the last three sheriffs were elected. As the primary campaign progressed, Hunt and Briggs were publicly outspoken about this method of electing sheriffs. Hunt went a step further and filed complaints against Drake with the District Attorney, the Pennsylvania Attorney General, and the Potter County Commissioners for engaging in political activity while on the job. Ultimately, Drake won the primary and general elections.
Before Drake took office, but after he won, Briggs received several reprimands, including sleeping during a shift. Eight days after Drake took office, Briggs was terminated. Hunt, the union steward, grieved for Briggs. Hunt was then fired after requesting video footage of other officers sleeping on the job.
Briggs and Hunt filed suit against Drake and the County. They argued that their First Amendment rights to speech and association regarding political activities were violated. Hunt also claimed whistleblower protections under Pennsylvania law. The district court did not find a viable retaliation claim because of the length of time between the primary election and the firing of both Hunt and Briggs. Further, the court found no whistleblower protection because the correctional officers’ speech did not relate to a matter of public concern.
On appeal, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed with the court’s ruling on the retaliation claims. The appeals court found that Briggs was fired a mere eight days after Drake became sheriff and that Hunt was unlawfully retaliated against for his union activities after grieving Briggs’ termination. The appeals court also found whistleblower protections for Hunt because he spoke on matters of public concern when he filed complaints against Drake, including bringing claims of alleged corruption within the sheriff’s department and campaign violations under county, state, and federal law.
Although the court allowed the claims against Drake and members of his staff to move forward, the court dismissed all claims brought against the County because the officers failed to show a County policy or custom that caused “the specific deprivation of constitutional rights at issue” of the two officers.
Post Authored by Mike Halpin & Julie Tappendorf