By M. Allie Clayton

On February 15, 2017, in the civil case of Crouse v. Town of Moncks Corner, the Fourth Circuit held that the police chief in Moncks Corner had qualified immunity against a claim by two police officers that they had been fired in retaliation for the exercise of their First Amendment rights.

Initial Facts

Appellants are two detectives, Richard Crouse and George Winningham, who were forced to resign from the Moncks Corner Police Department in October 2013.  The officers were forced to resign due to an interaction they had with Mr. Berkeley regarding Mr. Berkeley’s treatment at the hands of their supervising officer, Lieutenant Michael Roach.  Mr. Berkeley was arrested by Lt. Roach on October 4th. Prior to this incident, the relationship between Lt. Roach and the two detectives, Crouse and Winningham, had been deteriorating, with at least one of the detectives complaining to Captain Murray and Chief Caldwell. Prior to the incident with Mr. Berkeley, the complaints dealt with his management style, treatment of criminal suspects, and showing the officers inappropriate pictures, but did not include accusations of excessive use of force.

The Incident(s) with Mr. Berkeley

On October 4, 2013, James Berkeley was arrested by Lt. Roach. Reports of the arrest conflicted, even by those who were present. The actual facts of the arrest are inconsequential, however, because, on Monday, October 7, 2013, Crouse and Winningham heard a version of what happened. Another officer told Crouse and Winningham that he had heard that Lt. Roach had “kneed Mr. Berkeley in the groin.” Crouse and Winningham further investigated the arrest incident by reading the incident report and viewing pictures of the incident. Crouse talked to Capt. Murray about his concern.

The next day, October 8, 2013, Crouse and Winningham decided to speak to Berkeley. During lunch, the two officers went to Berkeley’s house. Although the two were wearing plain clothes and driving in an unmarked car, the officers’ badges and guns were visible. The two were sitting outside Berkeley’s home for a few minutes when they saw Berkeley and initiated a conversation with him. Crouse and Willingham encouraged Berkeley to file a complaint against Roach, telling him that other officers supported his version of the story. Winningham suggested Berkeley get an attorney. Crouse handed Berkeley a form that the police department had created for citizens to submit complaints about police officers. That form was freely available in the police station and had been handed out upon request by clerical staff and police officers.

Crouse and Winningham attempted to conceal the fact that they had met with Berkeley. Crouse made sure that his fingers never touched the form that was given to Berkeley. Crouse also instructed Berkeley to pretend that he did not recognize the officers if they saw each other later. The two originally agreed to tell anyone who asked that Berkeley had flagged them down, but later decided that they would tell the truth if they were questioned.

All of the countermeasures that the two men used to try to conceal their interaction with Berkeley were in vain, as Mr. Berkeley called Officer Winder that same day. Berkeley told Officer Winder that a Moncks Corner police officer had encouraged him to sue Roach and the Moncks Corner police department. Officer Winder informed Chief Caldwell, who responded by assigning Lieutenant Mark Fields to investigate both Berkeley’s claim of excessive use of force and Berkeley’s visit by the mystery officers.

The Investigation by Lt. Fields

The investigation by Lt. Fields did not require much in order to discover who the mysterious officers were. On October 15, 2013, Lt. Fields interviewed Mr. Berkeley, both about the arrest and about the mysterious officers. Based on the physical description of the two men, Fields immediately suspected Winningham and Crouse. Fields told Chief Caldwell of his suspicions and then proceeded to interview Crouse and Winningham separately. Both Crouse and Winningham admitted what they had done, both orally and in written statements. Fields told Chief Caldwell of the confession. Chief Caldwell then instructed Captain Murry to offer Crouse and Winningham an ultimatum: either the two could voluntarily resign or they would be terminated.

Procedural History

On February 19, 2014, Crouse and Winningham filed suit against Chief Caldwell and the Town of Moncks Corner. They raised three claims, two about their wages and a claim under 42 U.S.C. §1983. Regarding their §1983 claim, the detectives argued that their forced resignations were unconstitutional because they were in retaliation for the detective’s exercise of their First Amendment rights. The district court held that Chief Caldwell was entitled to qualified immunity regarding the First Amendment claim and granted summary judgment in favor of Chief Caldwell. The district court reasoned that the Chief was entitled to qualified immunity because, under Garcetti v. Ceballos, acting as a private citizen was a required element of a First Amendment retaliation claim, and the plaintiffs did not clearly establish that element. The two other claims were dismissed without prejudice, and the plaintiffs re-filed those claims as a separate action.

The Issue

The issue in this case is whether the chief of police had qualified immunity on the 42 U.S.C. The §1983 claim, and, if the chief did not have qualified immunity, whether the plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights were violated.

The Law

Employees do not surrender their First Amendment rights, even if they are employed by the government. The interests underlying the rule are both the employee’s interest in commenting upon matters of public concern and the community’s interest in hearing the opinion of the employees’ informed opinions. (See Pickering v. Bd. of Educ. & City of San Diego v. Roe). While the government employer might impose certain restraints on the employees’ speech.

Under McVey v. Stacy, the Fourth Circuit has established a three-prong test to determine whether an employee’s First Amendment rights were violated. The first two prongs of which are questions of law. The first prong involves two inquiries: (1) whether the speech was made as a citizen or pursuant to the employee’s duty & (2) whether the speech addressed a matter of the community’s interest or complaints regarding internal office affairs. If the speech was made as a private citizen about a matter of public concern, the inquiry can proceed to the second prong. The second prong requires the court to balance the interest of the employee in speaking and the interest of the government in providing efficient services, which requires a “particularized inquiry into the facts of a specific case.” Only if the employee’s interest outweighed the government employer’s interest, does the court proceed to the third prong—a determination whether the speech caused the disciplinary action.

Qualified Immunity

An employer is entitled to qualified immunity from those claims if either of the first two prongs cannot be resolved under clearly established law. Under Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, to defeat a claim for qualified immunity, a plaintiff must show two things: (1) that the official violated a constitutional or statutory right & (2) that the right was “clearly established at the time of the challenged conduct.” In order to demonstrate that the right was clearly established, there must be existing precedent that places the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate. The inquiry depends on the official’s perceptions when the incident occurred.

Holding and Reasoning

Chief Caldwell is entitled to qualified immunity because he reasonably could have viewed the actions of Crouse and Winningham as “surreptitious conduct designed to foment complaints and litigation against a supervisor with whom they did not get along. The Fourth Circuit further stated that the right is not clearly established in this case, and thus the Fourth Circuit did not even address whether or not the constitutional violation occurred.

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court which stated that Caldwell was entitled to qualified immunity because it was unclear whether Crouse and Winningham were speaking as citizens or as government employees.  The inquiry of whether Crouse and Winningham were speaking as citizens involves a practical inquiry into the employee’s daily professional activities to determine whether the task was within the scope of the employee’s duties.  The Court reasoned that under the facts to his case, Chief Caldwell was reasonably able to believe that Crouse and Winningham were speaking as employees of the police department.  Crouse and Winningham were identified as police officers and their speech resembled their daily duties as detectives.  According to the court, Chief Caldwell “is not liable for bad guesses in gray areas.” Because Chief Caldwell’s belief was reasonable, he is thus entitled to qualified immunity

Disposition

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court of South Carolina’s decision that Chief Caldwell was entitled to qualified immunity. The Court affirmed that Chief Caldwell had a reasonable belief that Crouse and Winningham were acting as police officers and thus, have viewed his interest in maintaining discipline within the department as paramount, leading to a proper exercise of his discretion.

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