The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has affirmed a district court’s summary judgment rejecting a police chief’s attempt to escape First Amendment retaliation liability based on a qualified immunity defense.

Matthew Petrie sued the City of Grapevine and its police chief, Edward Salame, after Petrie was demoted from full-time school resource officer to uniform patrol duties. While off duty and out of uniform, Petrie had discussed the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program with the City of Colleyville’s police chief. Salame accused Petrie of going outside the chain of command and demoted him shortly thereafter.

The district court granted summary judgment for the City of Grapevine after holding that Petrie could not establish liability against the City under 28 U.S.C. § 1983. Salame also moved for summary judgment on the merits and based on his qualified immunity defense. The district court denied Salame’s motion, and Salame asserted his immunity defense on appeal.

Through his trial counsel, Petrie retained Smith Law Group, P.C. to defend the appeal in the Fifth Circuit. With substantial assistance from Maitreya Tomlinson, lead counsel D. Todd Smith argued that the circuit court lacked jurisdiction to consider factual issues Salame attempted to raise on appeal and that qualified immunity did not shield Salame from liability as a matter of law. The Fifth Circuit agreed on all counts, concluding that Petrie had alleged a violation of his constitutional right to free speech, Petrie had presented a fact question on whether his demotion was an adverse employment action, and Salame had failed to demonstrate that his conduct was objectively reasonable in light of clearly established law. Accordingly, the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s order, effectively returning the case for trial.

Petrie v. Salame, No. 12-11171 (5th Cir. Oct. 31, 2013) (slip opinion available here).