The Contra Costa County Deputy Sheriff’s Association represents sworn and unsworn employees who work for the Contra Costa County, California Sheriff’s Office. The Association sued the County, alleging that the County and four members of the Board of Supervisors violated the Association’s free speech rights by making threats in retaliation for the Association’s participation in a petition drive to overturn a supervisor salary increase passed by the Board of Supervisors.
The Association alleged that one supervisor had told the former president of the Association that it had “made a bad decision and it is not going to end well for you guys.” The supervisor also allegedly told the Association that its members’ working conditions were something that the County “can always make worse.” During two public meeting of the Board of Supervisors, the supervisor mentioned bringing “Chuck Reed type pension reform” to the County, which the Association understood as “an alteration in pension and retirement benefits provided to most California public employees, including members of the Association, characterized by substantial reductions in the value of such benefits.”
The Association alleged that another supervisor alluded to the possibility of “Chuck Reed type pension reform” on two occasions. During a phone call, the Supervisor remarked that “human nature says there will be negative ramifications” for the Association, and that “the County supervisors were all on board” with her and “would not change their minds.” The supervisor also said that the Association was “stupid” if it thought the petition drive would turn out well; that although the Board of Supervisors had previously intended to increase the compensation of the Association’s members, this would no longer happen due to the petition; and that she had nothing to lose by “coming after” the Association, explaining: “I’m only going to be around for the next four or eight years. But the DSA is going to suffer for many years to come.”
A federal court dismissed the Association’s lawsuit, concluding that mere threats were not enough to trigger a free speech analysis. The Court held that “the Complaint alleges that Defendants have engaged in nothing more than threatening speech. The County Board of Supervisors has not formally proposed any legislation or undertaken any vote that might negatively impact the Association’s members. Furthermore, negotiations between the parties regarding future labor contracts have not yet begun. Instead, according to the Complaint, two members of the Board have made threats regarding future contract negotiations, and issued harsh, but ultimately hollow, words regarding pension reform. These allegations are insufficient to meet the adverse employment action requirement for a First Amendment claim brought by public employees against their employer.”
Contra Costa County Deputy Sheriffs Association v. Mitchoff, 2015 WL 1322577 (N.D. Cal. 2015).