Rumor has it! New Jersey Officer’s Free Speech Claim Based on Rumors Dismissed for Lack of Evidence

By Kate Acheson

Officer Von Rhine, an employee of Camden, NJ County Sheriff’s Department, claimed his Department violated his First Amendment rights to Free Speech by transferring him in retaliation, for complaints he made against his boss.  The Federal Court for the District of New Jersey dismissed this claim in Von Rhine v. Camden County Sherriff’s Office.

In 2006, the NJ County Sherriff’s Department Union filed a grievance about the improper timing of 16 union officers’ transfers.  The officers, including Von Rhine, were transferred to new positions in October, but the CBA requires all transfers become effective in January.  The day after this grievance was filed Fontanez, Von Rhine’s boss and the person who approved the October transfers, threatened to withhold preferred positions from Von Rhine if he did not oppose the grievance.  Von Rhine reported these threats to the union and testified in the resulting ULP action.  

Following his testimony against Fontanez, Von Rhine was transferred to his preferred unit, the Special Investigations Bureau.  There, he was called a “rat,” ridiculed by parody photos posted around the office, and shot at by one officer with pellet and BB guns.  In January of 2008, Von Rhine complained to Sheriff Billingham about his ill-treatment, which resulted in administrative charges. 

Then, in October 2008, Von Rhine was transferred to a less desirable position in the Probation Department.  Around that same time, Officer Greenwood allegedly overheard pieces of a conversation in which Fontanez discussed SIB transfers, people he didn’t like, and Von Rhine.  Then, another officer told Von Rhine that it was Fontanez’s decision to transfer him.  Based on these rumors, Von Rhine filed complaint, alleging his transfer was in retaliation for his testimony against Fontanez.

The District Court dismissed Von Rhine’s claim, finding the rumors to be insufficient evidence of retaliation against Von Rhine.  Sheriff Billingham testified that Von Rhine’s transfer was based on a rankings system and an independent officer’s recommendation; Fontanez was not involved in the alleged retaliatory action.  The rumors of the two officers, which suggests that Fontanez was involved, amounts to nothing more than speculation.

“[Speculation] is insufficient to raise a dispute of fact sufficient to survive summary judgment.”

No other evidence was offered to show some connection between the transfer and Von Rhine’s speech against Fontanez.  Thus, Von Rhine’s First Amendment claim was dismissed for lack of evidence.