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William J. Hunt v. County of Orange; Michael S. Corona

February 13, 2012


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of California Margaret M. Morrow, District Judge, Presiding D.C. No. 8:07-cv-00705-MMM-MLG

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Wardlaw, Circuit Judge:



Argued and Submitted October 11, 2011-Pasadena, California

Before: Edward Leavy and Kim McLane Wardlaw, Circuit Judges, and James C. Mahan, District Judge.*fn1

Opinion by Judge Wardlaw;

Partial Concurrence and Partial Dissent by Judge Leavy


The day after his scandal-ridden third election to the position of Orange County Sheriff-Coroner, Michael Carona placed on administrative leave William Hunt, a former lieutenant officer with the Orange County Sheriff's Department (OCSD), who had dared to enter the race and campaign against Carona's alleged culture of corruption. Carona then demoted Hunt, an action that prompted Hunt to file this 42 U.S.C. § 1983 suit claiming that his placement on administrative leave and subsequent demotion were in unconstitutional retaliation for the exercise of his First Amendment rights. The district court concluded that Hunt's campaign speech was not protected by the First Amendment because, based upon special factual findings by a jury, Hunt fell into the narrow "policymaker" exception to the general rule against politically-motivated dismissals. Although we determine that the district court erred in this conclusion, we agree with the district court's alternative holding that Carona is entitled to qualified immunity because a government official in his position "reasonably but mistakenly" could have believed that political loyalty was required by someone with Hunt's job responsibilities at the time he ran against Carona. We therefore affirm the judgment of the district court.


A lieutenant in the OCSD, Hunt was the Chief of Police Services for the City of San Clemente, which contracted with the OCSD for police services. In May 2005, Hunt announced that he would challenge Carona, the incumbent Orange County sheriff, in the upcoming June 6, 2006 election. During the campaign, Hunt issued public statements, radio addresses, press releases, and campaign literature critical of Carona's performance as sheriff, including allegations of corruption in the department. Carona defeated Hunt in the June 6 election and, on June 7, placed Hunt on administrative leave pending a personnel investigation regarding his speech and conduct during the campaign. Hunt was served with a notice of pending demotion on October 31, 2006 for "failing to perform [his] duties and responsibilities as a member of the Depart-ment's management team" and for violation of department rules prohibiting, among other things, bringing discredit upon the department. The notice catalogued Hunt's critical campaign communications and concluded that "[t]he Department lacks the confidence in [Hunt's] abilities to further the mission of this agency." Hunt was then demoted three ranks. Carona does not dispute that Hunt was demoted based on his campaign communications.

Hunt filed a complaint against Carona, Orange County, and other unnamed defendants alleging the violation of his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights under § 1983, as well as several causes of action under state law that were dismissed and are not at issue here. Before trial, the district court dismissed Orange County as a defendant on the ground that Hunt had abandoned his Monell municipal liability claim, and there was thus no longer a cognizable claim against the county.

Because the question of whether Hunt's position required political loyalty was critical to whether he fell into the policy-maker liability exception to the First Amendment, the parties tried the nature of Hunt's responsibilities and OCSD position to a jury. The district court instructed the jury to answer thirty-seven special interrogatories related to Hunt's position. The jury concluded, among other things, that:

Hunt did not have policymaking authority over any area of policy;

Hunt did not formulate, substantially influence, or substantially influence modifications to any department-wide policy;

Hunt did not formulate or substantially influence plans to implement the broad goals of the OCSD department-wide;

Hunt did not formulate policy that affected San Clemente;

Hunt did not exercise discretion in setting policy for the OCSD in San Clemente; Hunt did not directly and regularly communicate with Carona;

Hunt did not usually speak with Carona, as Hunt generally approached his supervisor or other department officials when confronted with policy-related decisions;

Hunt did not act as an advisor to Carona or the Assistant Sheriffs;

Hunt did not have authority to speak to the media without prior approval of ...

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