A plain English article:
Readers who’ve spent time before city or county councils may know how lawless these bodies can sometimes be. Many hold “public” meetings without announcing the time or place, disregard laws on raising taxes and the appropriation of public money, hide the details of procurement contracts and incentive deals, and move to “executive session” any time they don’t want the public to hear what they say.
The trend has worsened, by our reckoning, with the collapse of local newspapers. There was a day not long ago when a reporter or two might cover a small or mid-sized city’s council meetings. No more. The meetings are streamed online, but hardly anyone watches.
So we were heartened to read about a persistent Floridian named Fane Lozman, the victor in a recent Supreme Court decision. Lozman is a resident of Riviera Beach, Florida. He had already won a Supreme Court case in 2013, when the justices ruled 7-2 that the city had misused federal admiralty law to seize and destroy his floating house, then docked in the Riviera Beach marina.
Lozman used a freedom-of-information request to obtain minutes of an “executive session” meeting in which councilors openly discussed ways to threaten and intimidate him. At the next council meeting, during the segment in which members of the public were allowed to speak, Lozman rose to address the council, whereupon a councilman called for a police officer to escort him out of the room. When he refused to leave, he was arrested.
He sued and lost, but appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the Riviera Beach city council had violated his First Amendment right to speak to the council. That gives him grounds to sue the city for $230,000 in legal fees, which he’ll likely win. “I’ve heard horror stories from all over the country,” Lozman said after the decision; “people call me and they say they were physically thrown out of meetings. If you go on YouTube there’s lots of people being dragged out by elected officials, and I wanted to stop that.”
Lozman v. Riviera Beach won’t stop it, but it just might make rogue councilors hesitate before ordering cops to arrest citizens for asking troublesome questions.
Lozman v. City of Riviera Beach, Florida
certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the eleventh circuit
After petitioner Lozman towed his floating home into a slip in a marina owned by the city of Riviera Beach, he became an outspoken critic of the City’s plan to use its eminent domain power to seize waterfront homes for private development and often made critical comments about officials during the public-comment period of city council meetings. He also filed a lawsuit alleging that the City Council’s approval of an agreement with developers violated Florida’s open-meetings laws. In June 2006 the Council held a closed-door session, in part to discuss Lozman’s lawsuit. He alleges that the meeting’s transcript shows that councilmembers devised an official plan to intimidate him, and that many of his subsequent disputes with city officials and employees were part of the City’s retaliation plan. Five months after the closed-door meeting, the Council held a public meeting. During the public-comment session, Lozman began to speak about the arrests of officials from other jurisdictions. When he refused a councilmember’s request to stop making his remarks, the councilmember told the police officer in attendance to “carry him out.” The officer handcuffed Lozman and ushered him out of the meeting. The City contends that he was arrested for violating the City Council’s rules of procedure by discussing issues unrelated to the City and then refusing to leave the podium. Lozman claims that his arrest was to retaliate for his lawsuit and his prior public criticisms of city officials. The State’s attorney determined that there was probable cause for his arrest, but decided to dismiss the charges.
Lozman then filed suit under 42 U. S. C. §1983, alleging a number of incidents that, under his theory, showed the City’s purpose was to harass him, including by initiating an admiralty lawsuit against his floating home, see Lozman v. Riviera Beach, 568 U. S. 115. The jury returned a verdict for the City on all of the claims. The District Court instructed the jury that, for Lozman to prevail on his claim of a retaliatory arrest at the city council meeting, he had to prove that the arresting officer was motivated by impermissible animus against Lozman’s protected speech and that the officer lacked probable cause to make the arrest. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed, concluding that any error the District Court made when it instructed the jury to consider the officer’s retaliatory animus was harmless because the jury necessarily determined that the arrest was supported by probable cause when it found for the City on Lozman’s other claims. The existence of probable cause, the court ruled, defeated a First Amendment claim for retaliatory arrest.
Held: The existence of probable cause does not bar Lozman’s First Amendment retaliation claim under the circumstances of this case. Pp. 5–13.
(a) The issue here is narrow. Lozman concedes that there was probable cause for his arrest. Nonetheless, he claims, the arrest violated the First Amendment because it was ordered in retaliation for his earlier, protected speech: his open-meetings lawsuit and his prior public criticisms of city officials. Pp. 5–6.
(b) In a §1983 case, a city or other local governmental entity cannot be subject to liability unless the harm was caused in the implementation of “official municipal policy.” Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Servs., 436 U. S. 658, 691. The Court assumes that Lozman’s arrest was taken pursuant to an official city policy.
Two major precedents bear on the issue whether the conceded existence of probable cause for the arrest bars recovery regardless of any intent or purpose to retaliate for past speech. Lozman argues that the controlling rule is found in Mt. Healthy City Bd. of Ed. v. Doyle, 429 U. S. 274, a civil case in which a city board of education decided not to rehire an untenured teacher after a series of incidents, including a telephone call to a local radio station. The phone call was protected speech, but, the Court held, there was no liability unless the alleged constitutional violation was a but-for cause of the employment termination. Id., at 285–287. The City counters that the applicable precedent is Hartman v. Moore, 547 U. S. 250, where the Court held that a plaintiff alleging a retaliatory prosecution must show the absence of probable cause for the underlying criminal charge, id., at 265–266. If there was probable cause, the case ends. If the plaintiff proves the absence of probable cause, then the Mt. Healthy test governs. Pp. 6–10.
(c) Whether Hartman or Mt. Healthy governs here is a determination that must await a different case. For Lozman’s claim is far afield from the typical retaliatory arrest claim, and the difficulties that might arise if Mt. Healthy is applied to the mine run of arrests made by police officers are not present here. Lozman alleges that the City itself retaliated against him pursuant to an “official municipal policy” of intimidation. Monell, supra, at 691. The fact that he must prove the existence and enforcement of an official policy motivated by retaliation separates his claim from the typical retaliatory arrest claim. An official retaliatory policy can be long term and pervasive, unlike an ad hoc, on-the-spot decision by an individual officer. And it can be difficult to dislodge. A citizen can seek to have an individual officer disciplined or removed from service, but there may be little practical recourse when the government itself orchestrates the retaliation. Lozman’s allegations, if proved, also alleviate the problems that the City says will result from applying Mt. Healthy in retaliatory arrest cases, for it is unlikely that the connection between the alleged animus and injury in a case like this will be “weakened . . . by [an official’s] legitimate consideration of speech,” Reichle v. Howards, 566 U. S. 658, 668, and there is little risk of a flood of retaliatory arrest suits against high-level policymakers. Because Lozman alleges that the City deprived him of the right to petition, “ ‘one of the most precious of the liberties safeguarded by the Bill of Rights,’ ” BE&K Constr. Co. v. NLRB, 536 U. S. 516, 524, his speech is high in the hierarchy of First Amendment values. On these facts, Mt. Healthy provides the correct standard for assessing a retaliatory arrest claim. On remand, the Eleventh Circuit may consider any arguments in support of the District Court’s judgment that have been preserved by the City, including whether a reasonable juror could find that the City formed a retaliatory policy to intimidate Lozman during its closed-door session, whether a reasonable juror could find that the arrest constituted an official act by the City, and whether, under Mt. Healthy, the City has proved that it would have arrested Lozman regardless of any retaliatory animus. Pp. 10–13.
681 Fed. Appx. 746, vacated and remanded.
Kennedy, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor, Kagan, and Gorsuch, JJ., joined. Thomas, J., filed a dissenting opinion.