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Huff v. Rock Island County Sheriff's Merit Commission

January 30, 1998

MICHAEL HUFF, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
ROCK ISLAND COUNTY SHERIFF'S MERIT COMMISSION, CRAIG WONDERLICH, CHAIRMAN, ROBERT ELLISON, AND WILLIAM HAAS, MEMBERS OF THE ROCK ISLAND COUNTY SHERIFF'S MERIT COMMISSION, MICHAEL GRCHAN, SHERIFF OF ROCK ISLAND COUNTY, ROCK ISLAND, ILLINOIS, AND THE COUNTY OF ROCK ISLAND, ILLINOIS, DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES. MICHAEL HUFF, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
v.
ROCK ISLAND COUNTY SHERIFF'S MERIT COMMISSION, CRAIG WONDERLICH, CHAIRMAN; ROBERT ELLISON AND WILLIAM HAAS, MEMBERS OF THE ROCK ISLAND COUNTY SHERIFF'S MERIT COMMISSION; AND THE COUNTY OF ROCK ISLAND, ILLINOIS, DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES AND SEPARATE APPELLANTS, AND MICHAEL GRCHAN, SHERIFF OF ROCK ISLAND COUNTY, ROCK ISLAND, ILLINOIS DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



IN THE APPELLATE COURT OF ILLINOIS THIRD DISTRICT A.D., 1998

Appeal from the Circuit Court for the 14th Judicial Circuit, Rock Island County, Illinois No. 96--MR--28 Honorable Joseph F. Beatty Judge, Presiding Appeal from the Circuit Court for the 14th Judicial Circuit, Rock Island County, Illinois No. 96--MR--28 Honorable John O'Shea Judge, Presiding

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Breslin delivered the opinion of the court:

This case is but one chapter in a lengthy dispute concerning officer misconduct. The defendant, Rock Island County Sheriff's Merit Commission (Commission), found the plaintiff, Sergeant Michael Huff, guilty of neglect of duty and terminated his employment with the sheriff's department. The trial court upheld the finding of guilt, but found Huff's dismissal to be unreasonable and remanded the case to the Commission. The Commission subsequently reduced the punishment to a demotion and a suspension, and the trial court affirmed that decision. Huff appeals the Commission's decision regarding his demotion and suspension (3--97--0207). The Sheriff and the Commission appeal the trial court's decision that the original discharge determination was unreasonable (3--97--0172). For the reasons which follow, we affirm 3--97--0172 and reverse in part 3--97--0207.

FACTS

In August of 1995, Sgt. Huff and a fellow sheriff's deputy responded to a domestic violence call. When they arrived at the scene, the victim requested that the officers remove the alleged aggressor from the premises. Sgt. Huff recognized the aggressor to be a Rock Island County sheriff's correctional officer. Consequently, he called the state police to handle the dispute. Sgt. Huff left the scene before the state trooper arrived, leaving the deputy to wait for the trooper. Later in his shift, Sgt. Huff contacted the state trooper and thanked him for dealing with the call. He did not request an incident report.

Section 60/304 of the Domestic Violence Act (Act) requires that every officer who does not make an arrest must make a police report of any bona fide allegation of an incident of abuse. 735 ILCS 60/304(b)(1)(West 1996). In addition, the Rock Island County sheriff's police domestic violence manual mandates that whenever an officer receives a report of any offense committed between family members or in a household, an incident report must be prepared whether or not an arrest was made. Sgt. Huff did not complete a domestic violence report until several weeks after the incident when his supervisor, Captain Gould, requested that he do so.Subsequently, Michael Grchan, the sheriff of Rock Island County (Sheriff), filed a complaint with the Commission charging Sgt. Huff with neglect of duties and alleging cause to discipline. According to the Rock Island County Sheriff Police Rules and Regulations, the Sheriff has the authority to discipline officers for police misconduct. In addition, the Sheriff may bring charges against any officer before the Commission. Conduct that is detrimental to the discipline and efficiency of the department is punishable by the Commission by: (1) written reprimand; (2) reduction in rank, suspension, or both; or (3) discharge.

Prior to the Commission hearing, Sgt. Huff requested the recusal of the chairman of the Commission, Craig Wonderlich, claiming his affiliation with the Sheriff's re-election campaign two years prior was sufficient evidence of bias. He also asked that Commissioner Robert Ellison be removed because he was prejudiced based on comments he made during a previous lawsuit in which he referred to Sgt. Huff as "the thorn in our side." Ellison responded that he did not remember the previous suit or the statement. Both members individually considered the request and refused to step down.

During the hearing, Sgt. Huff admitted committing all charges but maintained that his actions did not amount to officer misconduct. After hearing testimony from the parties and several witnesses, the Commission found Sgt. Huff guilty of misconduct. In closing, Commissioner Ellison stated he did not think that the charges of misconduct warranted dismissal. During the aggravation and mitigation portion of the Commission hearing, the Sheriff attempted to present a Silvis police enforcement officer as a witness. Her testimony concerned an alleged incident of domestic violence involving herself and Sgt. Huff. The Commission excluded her as a witness, finding the subject matter of her testimony irrelevant and speculative. At the Conclusion of the hearing, the Commission terminated Sgt. Huff's employment with the department.Sgt. Huff filed suit in the circuit court challenging the Commission's decision, and the Sheriff filed a counterclaim alleging that the Commission improperly excluded the Silvis officer's testimony. The trial court concluded that the determination of Sgt. Huff's guilt and the exclusion of the Sheriff's witness were proper. However, the court remanded the cause and ordered the Commission to consider a lesser penalty. Under written protest, the Commission reduced the penalty to a demotion to deputy as of the date Sgt. Huff engaged in the wrongful conduct. In addition, the Commission imposed a 180 day suspension without pay as of the date he was found guilty plus a suspension without pay for the period of time Sgt. Huff was suspended by the Sheriff prior to the Commission's determination. The trial court affirmed. Sgt. Huff appeals the Commission's decision ordering his demotion and suspension (3--97--0207), and both the Commission and the Sheriff appeal the trial court's order to reduce the penalty (3--97--0172).

ANALYSIS

Recusal of Commission Members (3--97--0207)

Under the law of administrative review, an administrative hearing is required to provide due process. Seul's Inc. v. Liquor Control Comm'n, 240 Ill. App. 3d 828, 608 N.E.2d 530 (1992). A fundamental principle of due process, applicable to administrative agencies and commissions, is that no person who has a personal interest in the subject matter of a suit may sit in Judgement on that case. In re Heirich, 10 Ill. 2d 357, 140 N.E.2d 825 (1956). A personal interest or bias can be pecuniary, or any other interest that may have an effect on the impartiality of the decision-maker. City of Naperville v. Wehrle, 340 Ill. 579, 173 N.E. 165 (1930). To prove bias, the plaintiff must overcome a presumption of honesty by showing in the record that the administrative proceedings were either tainted by dishonesty or contained an unacceptable risk of bias. Caliendo v. Martin, 250 Ill. App. 3d 409, 620 N.E.2d 1318 (1993).

Sgt. Huff contends that because Commission chairman Wonderlich was the chairman of the Sheriff's re-election committee two years prior to the hearing, Wonderlich was biased and should have recused himself.

Sgt. Huff's argument fails to set forth a genuine claim of impartiality. The fact that the chairman served as the Sheriff's campaign manager two years prior to the hearing does not, standing alone, prove the existence of impropriety. See People v. McLain, 226 Ill. App. 3d 892, 589 N.E.2d 1116 (1992) (plaintiff's attorney serving as trial Judge's previous campaign manager was insufficient to show bias). These accusations of bias based on a past relationship, without evidence that a close personal relationship is on-going, do not demonstrate an unacceptable risk of bias. In addition, the record does not indicate that Wonderlich decided ...


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