Lieutenant Wins Legal Theory But Loses Case Against Sheriff

William Hunt was a lieutenant in the Orange County, California Sheriff’s Department. Hunt was the Chief of Police Services for the City of San Clemente, which contracted with the Department for police services. In May 2005, Hunt announced that he would challenge Mike Carona, the incumbent Orange County Sheriff, in the upcoming June 6, 2006 election.

During the campaign, Hunt issued public statements, radio addresses, press releases, and campaign literature critical of Carona’s performance as Sheriff, including allegations of corruption in the Department. Carona defeated Hunt in the June 6 election and, on June 7, placed Hunt on administrative leave pending a personnel investigation regarding his speech and conduct during the campaign. Carona later demoted Hunt three ranks for “failing to perform his duties and responsibilities as a member of the Department’s management team” and for violation of Department rules prohibiting, among other things, bringing discredit upon the Department.” Carona did not dispute that Hunt was demoted based on his campaign communications.

Hunt filed a complaint against Carona, Orange County, and other unnamed defendants alleging the violation of his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Before trial, the trial court dismissed Orange County as a defendant on the ground that Hunt had abandoned his municipal liability claim, and there was thus no longer a cognizable claim against the County. A jury then found that Hunt was a “policymaker” who could be fired for political reasons. The Supreme Court has carved out an exception to the general prohibition on political discharges, permitting dismissals on the basis of political beliefs of those employees in “policymaking positions” so that “representative government will not be undercut by tactics obstructing the implementation of policies of the new administration, policies presumably sanctioned by the electorate.” Because such dismissals and demotions potentially infringe upon constitutional rights, courts have held that the exception is “narrow” and should be applied with caution.

Hunt challenged the dismissal of his claims through an appeal to the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Court sided with Hunt on the policymaker issue, concluding “Political considerations were not appropriate requirements for the effective performance of Hunt’s job and are sufficient to end the policymaker inquiry. The binding factual findings of the jury indicate that Hunt was not – under the Supreme Court’s and our own doctrine – a ‘policymaker’ for the purposes of the exception to the First Amendment.

“Moreover, dismissals on the basis of political considerations must further a vital government end because they infringe upon a constitutional right. Here, the government has not sufficiently established the interest at stake, and has thus failed to meet its burden. Indeed, expanding the legal protection accorded to politically-motivated dismissals and demotions could very well undermine vital government interests. For example, an expansion of the exception could discourage some of the most capable and qualified people from running for higher office, and may also have a chilling effect on whistleblowing. Most persuasively, the jury, in its answers to the special interrogatories, found as a matter of fact that Hunt’s actions did not disrupt the efficient operation of the Department, nor could anyone have reasonably thought they would.

Moreover, a sheriff’s lieutenant is not automatically a policymaker. Indeed, the jury found that: Hunt did not have a vaguely worded job description; Hunt did not have authority to speak to the media without prior approval of higher-ranking officials; Hunt did not have policymaking authority over any area of policy; Hunt did not formulate, substantially influence, or substantially influence modifications to any department-wide policy; Hunt did not formulate or substantially influence plans to implement the broad goals of the Department department-wide; Hunt did not formulate policy that affected San Clemente; and Hunt did not exercise discretion in setting policy for the Department in San Clemente.

“The picture painted by the jury’s factual findings shows that Hunt was one of 60 Department lieutenants, with no authority to formulate policy, who reported to a supervisor, and who needed approval from higher-ranking officials to speak on behalf of the Department. He did have heightened administrative responsibility over San Clemente, which accounts for a small fraction of Orange County’s population, where the effective performance of his job was neither compromised by his statements during the campaign, nor dependent on Carona’s trust in him. We thus conclude that Hunt was not a policymaker.”

Though Hunt prevailed on the legal question of whether he was a policymaker, he lost his lawsuit. Because the County had been dismissed from the lawsuit, Hunt had to prove the Carona was not entitled to “qualified immunity.” Under the “qualified immunity” rule, a public administrator is shielded from liability unless a plaintiff shows (1) that the official violated a statutory or constitutional right, and (2) that the right was “clearly established” at the time of the challenged conduct. The Court found that “Carona could have reasonably but mistakenly believed that Hunt’s demotion was not unconstitutional, given the unique nature of his job as Chief of Police Services for the City of San Clemente. Although Hunt’s position had no department-wide policy-making responsibility, influence, or control, as the jury found, Hunt exercised discretion over the implementation of the Department policy within San Clemente, influenced the Department policy as it affected San Clemente, and formulated plans to implement the Department policy in San Clemente. While Hunt had to secure authority before speaking with the public, when he did so, it was on behalf of the Department. Even if Carona engaged in the appropriate analysis and wrongly concluded that Hunt was a policy-maker such that demoting him was constitutional, we cannot say that he acted objectively unreasonably in concluding he could demote Hunt without violating his constitutional rights.”

Hunt v. County of Orange, 2012 WL 432297 (9th Cir. 2012)

Note: Carona was one of the more controversial sheriffs in Orange County history. In 2008, Carona resigned as sheriff and was subsequently convicted of one count of witness tampering, and is now serving a sentence of 66 months in federal prison.