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Grossart v. Dinaso

April 3, 1985

BARBARA A. GROSSART, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
HARRY A. DINASO, HERBERT F. ELZINGA, ROBERT H. TELANDER, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN THEIR CAPACITY AS TRUSTEES OF THE TOWN OF WORTH, AND THE TOWN OF WORTH, DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 83-C-2053, Thomas R. McMillen, Judge.

Author: Swygert

Before CUDAHY and POSNER, Circuit Judges, and SWYGERT, Senior Circuit Judge.

SWYGERT, Senior Circuit Judge. Barbara Grossart, the plaintiff-appellant, filed suit against the Town of Worth (an Illinois township hereinafter referred to as "the Town") and its Board of Trustees (hereinafter referred to as "the Board") alleging that she was discharged from her employment with the Town because of her politics, in violation of her first and fourteenth amendment rights. After a bench trial, the district judge entered judgment for the defendants. We affirm.

I

A. Facts

Unless otherwise noted, the uncontested facts are as follows. Grossart was hired as a bookkeeper by the Town in October 1973. At that time, she as well as all five members of the Board, the governing body of the Town, were members of the Republican Party. Between 1973 and 1977 Grossart was an active member of the party, serving as precinct captain and election judge.

In 1977 Dr. Joseph McCarthy, A Democrat, was elected Town Supervisor and member of the Board. McCarthy retained Grossart as bookkeeper and soon came to rely on her as a "fount of information." Her duties evolved, becoming "more intense" as the Town's finances became more complex. She became responsible for preparing quarterly payroll reports; drafting responses to IRS notices; complying with federal recordkeeping guidelines governing the administration of federal revenue sharing funds, which had to be strictly segregated from other Town funds; keeping records of and preparing annual reports for the Town fund, the general assistance fund, and the road district fund; preparing a monthly treasurer's report that informed the Board as to the current dollar amount in each fund; calling local banks to determine the current interest rates, so that the Town could invest its funds wisely; setting accounting codes for the new fiscal year's budget; working with the auditor to prepare an end-of-year audit; and monitoring the paperwork generated by the Town's purchases to ensure that orders were not duplicated, that the ordering department had sufficient funds to cover each purchase, and that invoices from vendors could be matched with purchase orders. In sum, Grossart testified that she " worked for the supervisor and board of trustees" and "was directed by them as to anything that was needed to be done regarding the finances of the township."

Between 1977 and 1981 Grossart became increasingly apolitical. She did not actively participate in the 1977 Republican campaign. She ceased serving as a Republican election judge and became politically inactive. Grossart defined her job as apolitical and expressed a desire to stay out of politics. On the other hand, she apparently contributed some funds to McCarthy's reelection campaign in 1981.

In 1981 three Republicans, also defendants in this case, were elected to the Board. Although McCarthy was reelected as Supervisor and member of the Board, the three Republicans formed a majority bloc that could out-vote McCarthy and the one other Democratic member of the Board. The apparent leader of the Republican majority was defendant Harry Dinaso, who subsequently became finance chairman. Dinaso and McCarthy differed in their conception of the finance chairman's role. Dinaso believed the post entitled him vigorously to oversee the administration of Town finances; McCarthy believed that Dinaso was using the post to interfere with the day-to-day operations of the township, for which the Supervisor alone was responsible.

Finding McCarthy uncooperative, Dinaso turned to Grossart for information on Town finances. Partly as a reward for her good work and partly as a means of inducing Grossart to shift her loyalties from McCarthy to the Board as a whole, Dinaso persuaded the Board in 1982 to give Grossart a $1000 raise and to change her title to "Executive Administrative Assistant to the Board." Grossart's $18,000 salary made her the highest paid unelected official in the Town.

There was some evidence tending to show that Republican officials pressured Grossart to return to the party and that the Republican trustees viewed her job as a patronage post. It was uncontested that Republican Trustee Elzinga asked Town Auditor Westberg to urge Grossart to become an active Republican. McCarthy testified that shortly after the election, Dinaso compiled a list of employees who "had to go" and that his goal was a 60:40 ratio of Republican employees to Democratic employees. Barbara Grossart and a number of Democrats were on the list. On the other hand, Dinaso testified that his reference to a 60:40 ratio was just "kidding around," and Trustee Telander denied any knowledge of a "hit list." Grossart interpreted Dinaso's requests for more financial information as a solicitation to "spy" on McCarthy for the good of the Republican majority; Dinaso testified that he simply needed more information and that he had to overcome Grossart's personal loyalties to McCarthy.

Grossart was dismissed on February 28, 1983 after a heated executive session of the Board. The action was taken at Dinaso's instigation; the vote was 3-2 and divided on strictly partisan lines. the purported reason for the dismissal was Grossart's failure to obtain Dinaso's signature on two large purchase orders, pursuant to a policy set by the Board at Dinaso's instigation. Grossart was replaced by Kathy Spencer, a Republican with no bookkeeping qualifications.

Grossart testified that she believed the real reason for her termination was that she refused to "become Mr. Dinaso's right hand mand [sic] and provide him with any and all information that he needed." McCarthy believed that Dinaso's motive was to seize the opportunity to eliminate a high-profile employee as part of a "Get McCarthy" campaign. Dinaso admitted that the improper purchase orders were just one factor in his decision to instigate Grossart's termination. He said his other motives included his intuition that Grossart was not giving him all the financial information he desired, his feeling that he had been "betrayed" when Grossart suddenly revealed the existence of a $31,000 surplus after previously counseling austerity, Grossart's flippant answers to his questions about the improper purchase orders, and the sheer emotion of the moment.

B. District Court Proceedings

Grossart filed an action alleging that the three Republican trustees, acting under color of State law, had deprived her of her constitutional rights of free association and belief by voting to terminate her employment for purely political reasons in violation of 42 U.S.C. ยง 1983. After a bench trial and the district court entered judgment for the defendants.

The court found that Grossart was not a policymaking employee and therefore could not be terminated for political reasons. Turning to the reasons for Grossart's termination, the court rejected the leading scenarios proposed by both sides. The court did not accept Grossart's contention that the unsuccessful efforts of Republican officials to re-enlist her in the party resulted in her termination. On the other hand, the court found that the purported reason given by Dinaso at the time of the termination -- improper purchase orders -- as also not the cause of the termination. Indeed, the judge concluded that Grossart had been a "very valuable employee" who "had rendered conscientious service" and had done a "very exemplary job." Finding that Dinaso "probably knows more about it [the reason for the discharge of Grossart] than anybody," the court reviewed the various reasons given by Dinaso in his testimony at trial and found them all to be nonpolitical.

The court first noted Dinaso's sense of betrayal. The court referred that this sense of betrayal could have stemmed from Dinaso's belief that Grossart was "not giving him the financial and monetary information that he wanted at the time when he wanted it." But the court also noted that another permissible inference was that Dinaso believed that Grossart had "betrayed him by cooperating with the person with whom he was having a political struggle, a power struggle, I should say -- not a 'political struggle' -- Dr. McCarthy." But such a motive, according to the district judge, did not implicate the first and fourteenth amendments, inasmuch as such cooperation would be "a personal betrayal, not a political betrayal."

Next, the court noted Dinaso's assertion that two purchase orders had not been approved in accordance with proper procedures. Although this "was not the reason she was terminated," it did aggravate the relationship between Dinaso and Grossart. Whether Dinaso's criticisms of Grossart's performance n this regard were unfounded was not relevant because ...


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