(CN) - A Tennessee highway patrolman who says he was demoted because he is a Republican can sue for discrimination and retaliation after the 6th Circuit revived his case.
Lt. Robert Eckerman filed suit in 2007 after he was demoted to sergeant when Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democratic, took office. A judge for the Tennessee Civil Service Commission has since reversed the demotion and reinstated Eckerman, finding that the demotion was unjustified.
Eckerman claims he ruffled his bosses' feathers by openly supporting Republican candidates with bumper stickers and yard signs, and by attending rallies.
In May 2006, six months before his demotion, Eckerman had also filed a federal discrimination complaint over his political affiliation.
The Tennessee Department of Safety and Eckerman's superiors argued that they demoted him for spreading malicious rumors about another officer in an Internal Affairs investigation.
A federal judge granted summary judgment to the department in 2009, finding that it had presented enough evidence that the reasons for Eckerman's demotion were not necessarily politically motivated.
"In support of its finding of summary judgment for defendants, the district court points to the fact that Eckerman headed the security detail at Bredesen's first inauguration in 2003 and also during the 2005 TennCare protests at the State Capitol as evidence that a causal connection is not strong," the appellate panel's ruling states.
On appeal, the Cincinnati-based circuit court found that the district court's finding contradicted Judge Joyce Carter-Bell's determination for the commission in 2007, which had precedence.
"Judge Carter-Bell made factual findings that cleared plaintiff of wrongdoing during the Internal Affairs investigation and concluded that the demotion had been improper and should be reversed," Circuit Judge Gilbert Merritt wrote for the court. "Given this significant fact, the legitimate nonpolitical reason given by defendants for Eckerman's demotion is discredited and defendants have not met their burden of showing that the demotion was not substantially motivated by plaintiff's engagement in constitutionally-protected activities."
Among other discriminatory conduct, Eckerman claims that in 2006 Velma Jones, who at the time was assistant to Safety Department Commissioner Gerald Nicely, "told him his 'problem' was that he was an 'R' (Republican) in a 'D' (Democratic) administration." (Parentheses in original.)