The Ninth Circuit has decided an important employment law case. In Dahlia v. Rodriguez, the court held that a Burbank police officer who complained about police misconduct by fellow police officers could bring a lawsuit for employment retaliation. The plaintiff in Dahlia was assigned to assist a robbery investigation. He observed other officers beating and threatening suspects during interrogations; after bringing the situation to the attention of the Lieutenant, who told him to “stop his sniveling,” he met with Internal Affairs and other investigators. He was threatened on the job and ultimately placed on administrative leave. So he alleged in his complaint.
The case was before the Court of Appeals at the motion to dismiss stage. That means that no evidence had been offered yet and the allegations of the complaint are assumed true for purposes of the motion. In deciding that the complaint has sufficient allegations to proceed, the Court of Appeals set an important precedent. It held that the police officer could bring an employment lawsuit alleging that the police department unlawfully retaliated against him for exercising his First Amendment rights. In doing so, the court overruled Huppert v. City of Pittsburg, which held that police officers who come forward and report official misconduct or corruption and are retaliated against as a result are not protected by the First Amendment because they have an official duty to report unlawful activity, and thus their speech is made as government employees, rather than as citizens. The Court of Appeals in Dahlia rejected such a formulaic view. It held that depending on the facts of the case, a police officer may be entitled to whistleblower protection under the First Amendment if he is fired or otherwise retaliated against for reporting police abuse.