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Police officer’s suit alleging retaliation for political comment survives

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The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed summary judgment in favor of two Portage police officers and the city on a detective’s claim that he was transferred in retaliation for comments he made to a local newspaper following the mayoral primary election in 2007.

Roger Peele supported Steve Charnetzky’s Democratic primary campaign for mayor of Portage and worked on his campaign in his spare time. Charnetzky lost the primary to Olga Velazquez, who was endorsed by Porter County Sheriff David Lain. Peele spoke to the Northwest Indiana Times on May 8, 2007, criticizing coverage of the race and Lain’s endorsement. He said referring to Lain, “He won’t get any support here.”

The next day, the comments were published in the paper. On May 10, Peele was transferred to the desk-bound position of station duty officer by police chief Clifford Burch. Peele sued Burch, assistant chief Larry Jolley and the city, alleging retaliation and defamation.

In Roger L. Peele v. Clifford Burch, individually and as Portage Police Department Chief, et al., 12-3562, Peele only argued that the defendants punished him for his political speech in violation of the First Amendment.

He must first provide evidence that the defendants were motivated, at least in part, by a desire to retaliate against him for his protected speech. If he does that, then the defendants may counter by showing they would have reached the same result even without the protected speech.

The timing of his transfer was highly suspicious, the 7th Circuit noted. The court also pointed to the deposition of Joe Radic, the officer who held the station duty officer position prior to Peele. According to Radic, Burch told him that he would not have to work as the station duty officer any more because Peele was being transferred to the position because he “made the mayor mad.” This reference to the mayor was to Velazquez, who would presumably become mayor.

“If genuine, Burch’s statements would provide powerful evidence that Peele’s transfer was politically motivated. We think this evidence, combined with the suspicious timing of the transfer, could be enough to lead a reasonable jury to decide in Peele’s favor,” Judge Michael Kanne wrote.

This evidence also casts doubt on the defendants’ claims that they decided to transfer Peele on May 4 for other reasons but waited to tell him until May 10. The 7th Circuit remanded for further proceedings.

 

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