Case reinstated for NYC officer who opposed arrest quotas

Thursday, November 29, 2012

A federal appeals court has reinstated the First Amendment lawsuit of a New York city police officer who alleged his superiors retaliated against him after he complained about a quota system for arrests.

Officer Chris Matthews questioned his superiors several times about the fairness of arrest quotas. Matthews said they were a disservice to the public.

According to Matthews, after he voiced these complaints, his superiors unleashed an avalanche of retaliatory actions against him, such as assigning him more foot patrols, denying him overtime and giving him negative performance evaluations.

However, in April 2012, U.S. District Judge Barbara S. Jones dismissed Matthews’ lawsuit on the basis of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2006 decision in Garcetti v. Ceballos. In Garcetti, the Court ruled that public officials who make statements as part of their official job duties have no free-speech protection. Jones reasoned that Matthews’ statements to his bosses were “consistent with his core duties as a police officer, to legally and ethically search, arrest, issue summonses, and — in general — police.”

Matthews appealed to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Yesterday, a three-judge panel of the 2nd Circuit reinstated Matthews’ lawsuit in Matthews v. City of New York.

The 2nd Circuit said the district court had acted too quickly in dismissing the lawsuit without further factfinding. “The record in this case is not yet sufficiently developed … to determine as a matter of law whether Officer Matthews spoke pursuant to his official job duties when he voiced the complaints made here in the manner in which he voiced them,” the appeals panel wrote.

The panel indicated more information was needed about Matthews’ job responsibilities, the nature of his complaints and the relationship between the two.

“In dismissing Officer Matthews’ case, the district court had ruled that police officers have no First Amendment right to speak out about misconduct by police officials because, the court claimed, such speech was just part of an officer’s job,” said Christopher Dunn, associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which represents Matthews.

“Had the appeals court accepted that position, it would have marked the end of whistleblowing by police officers. Happily, the court rejected that position, and we now look forward to vindicating the rights of Officer Matthews and other officers who have the courage to reveal police misconduct,” Dunn said.

Marta Ross, an attorney with the city’s Law Department, told The New York Times the city was “disappointed in the court’s decision.”

But, she said, city officials remain confident. “We believe that we’ll be successful at the case’s conclusion,” she said.

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