In Martha Karl v. City of Mountlake Terrace (9th Cir. May 8, 2012) No.11-35343, the federal Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled "it was clearly established ... that a supervisor cannot retaliate against a public employee for his or her subpoenaed deposition testimony offered as a citizen in the context of a civil rights lawsuit." As a result, the court held the local assistant chief of police could be personally liable for retaliation and is not entitled to qualified immunity.
The case started when a peace officer sued the city, alleging he was fired for being outspoken about the war on drugs. Martha Karl was called as a witness in the officer's lawsuit and testified at a deposition that the assistant chief wanted to terminate the officer because of his political opinions and that the assistant chief "had a reputation as a 'smooth talker' and a “'back stabber.'” When the assistant chief found out what Karl said, he told others she couldn't be trusted and that he would find a way to get rid of her.
According the court, the evidence showed the assistant chief had Karl transferred to a new position and set her up to fail during her probation period. He then had her fired. She sued for retaliation, naming the city and the assistant chief personally.
The court ruled the assistant chief was not entitled to qualified immunity, meaning he could be sued in his personal capacity. Qualified immunity is the principle that protects peace officers from personal liability in federal civil rights cases unless their conduct clearly violates established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known. Here, the court decided it was clearly established that law enforcement supervisors cannot retaliate against employees called as witnesses in civil rights cases on account of their testimony and the assistant chief should have known that.