A three-member Circuit Court of Appeals panel has affirmed a district court ruling denying former Baker City Police Chief Wyn Lohner qualified immunity as a defendant in a lawsuit filed by a former journalist three years ago.
Lohner, 54, is a defendant, along with the City of Baker City, in a lawsuit filed in October 2015, by Brian Addison, 53.
Addison claims that the City and Lohner retaliated against him after he wrote an editorial published in 2008 criticizing the police department. Addison was a reporter for the former weekly newspaper, The Record-Courier, at the time.
Addison alleges that the City and Lohner retaliated against his right to freedom of speech, interfered with his job opportunities, defamed him and deprived him of due process in retaliation for what he had written.
The complaint was set to go to trial in April of this year, but was postponed after Lohner appealed the ruling of U.S. District Judge Michael H. Simon, who denied Lohner’s claim of qualified immunity.
The Appeals Court panel affirmed Simon’s decision that Lohner violated Addison’s First Amendment rights after Addison published the editorial and that Lohner “engaged in a campaign of harassment” against Addison because of it.
Addison is represented by Clifford S. Davidson of the Sussman Shank law firm in Portland.
“We’re very pleased with the court’s ruling, and we look forward to resolving the case either through trial or otherwise,” Davidson said today.
Lohner could not be contacted in time for this story.
In affirming the ruling, the judges found that Lohner is not protected in his role as a police officer to use his authority “to retaliate against individuals for their protected speech.”
The panel also affirmed the lower court ruling that Lohner “engaged in a campaign of harassment over a period of years against Addison, which included contacting two of Addison’s employers (the Baker County Press and New Directions Northwest), manipulating Addison’s local law enforcement ‘fact file’ for the purpose of frightening Addison’s employers, and directing police officers to cite and ticket Addison.”
The judges pointed out that as a result of the harassment, Addison was fired from his job at New Directions.
“We agree with the district court that this is sufficient to create a genuine dispute of material fact regarding whether there was adverse action against Addison,” they stated.
The Appeals Court also agreed that Lohner’s argument that his speech was protected when he contacted Addison’s employers “mischaracterizes the scope” of his protection.
“While it is true that public employees are entitled to First Amendment protection ... this constitutional protection does not give them license to engage in a ‘campaign of harassment and humiliation’ against another person in response to that person’s exercise of the right to speak,” the judges stated.
Although Lohner argued that he did not direct his officers to “ticket Addison, produce Addison’s fact file to the employers, or manipulate Addison’s fact file,” the Appeals Court again affirmed the lower court ruling.
See more in the Nov. 19, 2018, issue of the Baker City Herald.