Restrictions Of On-Duty Political Campaigning Not Unreasonable

In 1989, Kenneth Eggleston was hired by the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office as a deputy in the road patrol division. On and off over the next decade, Eggleston worked under the supervision of Ed Bieluch while Bieluch was a sergeant and then lieutenant. The two men had a close working relationship and held each other in high regard.

The two remained close after Eggleston resigned from the Sheriff’s Office in September 1999 at the rank of sergeant. Bieluch, then a captain, asked for Eggleston’s assistance in his own campaign for sheriff during the November 2000 election. Eggleston managed Bieluch’s campaign, handling his meetings, television appearances and mailings. Bieluch told Eggleston that he planned to retire after only one term.

After winning the election, Bieluch asked the incumbent sheriff to hire Eggleston during the transition of administrations. Eggleston returned to the Sheriff’s Office as a captain in December 2000. After taking office in January 2001, Bieluch promoted Eggleston to the rank of undersheriff.

Seven months later, Bieluch announced that he planned to seek a second term as Sheriff. It was about that time that Eggleston and Bieluch’s relationship began to sour. In the fall of 2001, Eggleston began to voice his disagreement with Bieluch’s administration of the Department, expressing his feelings both in private meetings with Bieluch and during command staff meetings.

In December 2001, Eggleston was recruited by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in Washington D.C. to run for Congress against Representative Mark Foley. In December and January, local newspapers ran articles about Eggleston’s potential congressional bid and the possibility that he might run for Sheriff against Bieluch if his congressional campaign proved unsuccessful. Eggleston believed that a tension and coldness developed in his relationship with Bieluch.

In February 2002, Bieluch asked for Eggleston’s resignation as undersheriff, only days after Eggleston formally launched his congressional campaign. Eggleston convinced Bieluch to reassign him as a captain serving as district commander over the congressional district in which he was seeking election. Bieluch agreed to do that, but warned him that he could not use his office phone or pager for campaign purposes.

In March 2002, the issue of “flex-time” came up in the Sheriff’s Department’s monthly command staff meeting. The practice of flex-time was where members of the executive staff, including captains, track the overtime hours they worked and used those hours for personal business during a workday while still being considered “on duty” for pay purposes. At the command staff meeting, the new undersheriff informed Eggleston and all other executive staff members that the policy of flex-time was to cease.

Thereafter, Eggleston continued to use flex-time to campaign for Congress. On March 26, he attended a political lunch meeting with a representative of the Sugar Cane Growers’ Cooperative of Florida, wearing his official uniform to the meeting. On April 12, Eggleston traveled about 50 miles to Saint Lucie County to meet with the local sheriff for a campaign event. Eggleston again wore his uniform, and drove his patrol car to the meeting.

Eventually, Bieluch placed Eggleston on administrative leave with pay and ordered a formal internal affairs investigation into Eggleston’s campaign activities. That same day, Eggleston gave a televised speech, telling reporters he had been suspended from the Department when, in fact, he had only been placed on administrative leave. In his televised remarks, Eggleston also openly criticized the Department and Bieluch’s decisions as Sheriff.

Bieluch terminated Eggleston on May 8, 2002. Eggleston responded with a lawsuit, claiming he was discriminated against because of the exercise of his protected political and free speech rights under the First Amendment to the Constitution.

The federal Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed Eggleston’s lawsuit. The heart of Eggleston’s claim was that Bieluch violated his constitutional rights by limiting his ability to campaign during the internal investigation, which was conducted from April 16, 2002 through May 7, 2002. During that time, Eggleston was instructed to remain at his home during work hours, refrain from wearing his uniform, and stop representing himself as a Sheriff’s Office employee.

The Court found that the limitations placed on Eggleston’s campaign activities were reasonable and did not violate his constitutional rights. The Court agreed that “Eggleston has a right to campaign free from irrational obstacles, but the limitations imposed by Bieluch while Eggleston was being investigated were not irrational. It was not unreasonable to limit Eggleston’s campaign conduct during work hours and to restrict his ability to represent himself as a Palm Beach County captain, using the emblems of that Office while campaigning. Those restrictions were even more reasonable considering that the Department was in the process of investigating Eggleston’s prior campaign activities to ensure that he had not violated Department policies. The limitations, which were of 21 days in duration, were neither arbitrary nor vindictive and there is no evidence that they were motivated by Eggleston’s political affiliation.”

Eggleston v. Bieluch, 2006 WL 2817527 (11th Cir. 2006).

This article appears in the November 2006 issue