A police officer who was demoted after political operatives from Mayor Jose “Joey” Torres campaign witnessed him pick up an election lawn sign for his bedridden mother in support of former Police Chief Lawrence Spagnola during the 2006 mayoral election lost another appeal Thursday in a messy and drawn-out legal battle against the city.
Jeffrey Heffernan, 20-year veteran police officer, was demoted from his post after another police officer assigned to the mayor’s security staff witnessed him fetching a political lawn sign from Spagnola’s downtown political headquarters on April 13, 2006. “Word spread quickly, and the next day, one of Heffernan’s supervisors confronted him about his interaction with Spagnola’s campaign staff,” court records read.
Heffernan protested he “wasn’t politically involved.” He was “just picking up a sign for [his] mom.” Heffernan called Spagnola campaign manager beforehand to obtain a large campaign sign to replace his mother smaller sign that was stolen from her lawn.
He was immediately demoted to a “walking post” because of his “overt involvement in a political election.”
In August 2006, Heffernan filed a First Amendment violation lawsuit in federal court alleging the retaliatory demotion violated his right to freedom of speech and freedom of association. Heffernan’s case went to trial resulting in a jury verdict of $105,000 in his favor. After the trial Judge Peter G. Sheridan retroactively recused himself based on a conflict-of-interest vacating the jury award.
The case was reassigned to Judge Dennis M. Cavanaugh who erred in overlooking some points of the case and awarding a judgment in favor of the city. Heffernan appealed. The case was assigned to Judge Kevin McNulty who ordered fresh briefings finding “Heffernan had failed to produce evidence that he actually exercised his First Amendment rights.”
McNulty ruled in favor of the city on March 5, 2014. Heffernan appealed again. Judges Thomas I. Vanaskie, Morton Ira Greenberg, and Robert Cowen in their opinion issued Thursday affirmed McNulty’s ruling rehashing his opinion that Heffernan was not exercising his freedom of speech rights as is clearly evidenced by his own testimony that he “wasn’t politically involved.”
“Heffernan’s best argument here is that his actions had the effect of assisting Spagnola’s campaign, and indeed, Torres’s supporters construed his conduct as an expression of direct personal support for the campaign,” Vanaskie wrote for the panel of three. Heffernan secretly wished for Spagnola to win, but denied working on Spagnola’s campaign, being “politically involved” with the campaign, or “supporting [Spagnola] for mayor” at all, found the three judges.
Heffernan’s freedom of speech claim would have been strengthened if he expressly supported Spagnola, but each time he disavowed any political involvement leading judges to believe he wasn’t exercising his First Amendment rights.
“Heffernan repeatedly disavowed anything resembling ‘an intent to convey a particularized message,’” Vanaskie wrote.
“I was picking up a sign for my mother, and that’s all I was doing,” was Heffernan description of the incident that led to his demotion.
“In light of this unambiguous testimony, no room exists for a jury to find that Heffernan intended to convey a political message when he picked up the sign at issue,” the panel opined.