Jeffrey Wolfe worked as a police officer for the City of Town and Country Police Department in Missouri for more than 26 years. One of the officers he supervised was Lauren Becker, who later became his wife.
Wolfe was demoted from sergeant to corporal in April of 2017 following an investigation into his relationship with Becker and after a determination by the Department’s personnel committee that the demotion was ‘in the best interest of the Department so as not to impair the efficiency of the Department’ after considering ‘the ramifications of Wolfe’s admission of a sexual relationship involving a former direct subordinate officer.’ The Department had no policy prohibiting dating among officers but does have an ‘Unbecoming Conduct’ policy that included conduct that ‘impairs the operation or efficiency of the Department or officer.’
Wolfe sued, contending that he was demoted because of his off-duty association with another officer, causing him to be deprived of his right to Freedom of Association guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution and his right to privacy to make certain fundamental decisions in matters of sexual and/or familial relationships without government interference. A federal trial court dismissed his lawsuit.
The Court held that “because police departments function as paramilitary organizations charged with maintaining public safety and order, they are given more latitude in decisions regarding discipline and personnel regulations than an ordinary government employer. Defendants argue that the decision to investigate and demote Wolfe was rationally related to their legitimate interest in maintaining an orderly, safe, efficient, fair, and trustworthy police department.
“Specifically, they argue that Wolfe’s relationship with Becker prevented both officers from being scheduled on the same day or shift and prevented Wolfe from serving on personnel or promotional committees when Becker might be impacted by the committee’s determination. They also note the relationship could bias Wolfe or create the perception of bias or favoritism, alienate Becker from her fellow officers, threaten morale and harmony if the relationship soured, and risk sexual harassment litigation against the Department.
“Defendants’ interests are legitimate and well recognized. A police department has a substantial interest in developing ‘discipline, esprit de corps, and uniformity’ within its ranks so as to ensure the safety of persons and property. Sexual relationships between officers may threaten department morale. They also create the potential for sexual harassment suits.
“Defendants’ investigation and demotion of Wolfe are rationally related to those interests. The investigation was limited to determining the nature and extent of Wolfe’s relationship with Becker after rumors about their relationship persisted in the Department over several months. It did not otherwise probe into Wolfe’s private, non-job-related sexual activity. Demoting Wolfe reduced his supervisory responsibilities over Becker and thus reduced the possibility of favoritism, alienation, disharmony, and sexual harassment litigation for the Department.”
Wolfe v. City of Town and Country, 2022 WL 1165838 (E.D. Mo. 2022).
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