Federal appeals panel reinstates whistle-blowing officer’s lawsuit

Thursday, March 23, 2000

A former police officer in Pomona, Calif., who alleges that he was retaliated against after blowing the whistle on corruption in the department, has had his civil rights lawsuit reinstated by a federal appeals court panel.

Jed Blair sued the city, the chief of police and 50 unnamed defendants in the department, alleging he was subjected to a pattern of harassment after he blew the whistle on corruption within the department’s Major Crimes Task Force.

After an officer told him of alleged abuses within the task force, including the planting of heroin on a subject, Blair reported the allegations to his superiors in April 1995.

As a result of the disclosure, the task force was temporarily disbanded and several officers were suspended.

After Blair reported the allegations of corruption, he claimed he was subjected to numerous retaliatory acts, including:

  • Finding the words “rat” and “a——” written on his locker.

  • Finding his locker wired shut.

  • Finding one of his uniform shirts placed in a urinal.

  • Not receiving requested police backup while he was preparing to make an arrest.

  • Having his wife taunted by fellow officers.

  • Receiving a threatening phone call.

  • In September 1996, Blair sued, alleging that the department had engaged in a pattern or custom of retaliation against whistle-blowing police officers. In October 1995, Blair left work, saying he could not feel comfortable with his fellow officers. He received disability payments for a year and then took a leave of absence without pay for several months. Several doctors who examined Blair said he was too “sensitized” to return to work. The city eventually terminated him for absence from duty without leave in December 1997.

    In February 1998, U.S. District Judge Ronald S.W. Lew granted summary judgment to the defendants, finding that Blair did not demonstrate a pattern of civil rights violations.

    On appeal, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed in Blair v. City of Pomona, sending the case back to the lower court for trial.

    “Blair had the right under the First Amendment to inform his superiors of misconduct,” the court wrote in its March 21 opinion.

    From April to October 1995, Blair “was subjected to a series of acts that a reasonable factfinder could infer were inflicted by members of the Department with the knowledge and tacit connivance of those running the Department.”

    “This evidence, if believed by the jury, would be sufficient to establish that the Department had the custom of chastising whistleblowers,” the appeals court wrote.

    The 9th Circuit noted that the city’s explanations and defenses, which may be valid, are “proper for a jury to consider but not effective to sustain summary judgment.”

    Anne Richardson, Blair’s attorney, said the decision “absolutely affirms the First Amendment rights of police officers to speak out against police abuse.”

    “The decision is also particularly important because it deals with the issues of what constitutes an adverse employment action and what constitutes a custom for purposes of a civil rights lawsuit,” she said.

    “The decision also takes a very strong stand against the codes of silence that exist in numerous police departments across the country,” she said.

    Calls placed to the defendants’ attorney were not returned.