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Ehlers v. Jackson County Sheriff's Merit Commission

June 18, 1998


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Bilandic

Agenda 17

March 1998.

The plaintiff, Kate Ehlers, was employed as a sergeant at the Jackson County jail. The Jackson County Merit Commission (Merit Commission) terminated Sergeant Ehlers' employment for cause, acting upon a complaint filed by the defendant William Kilquist, sheriff of Jackson County. On administrative review, the circuit court of Jackson County confirmed Ehlers' dismissal. The appellate court reversed and ordered Ehlers reinstated. 289 Ill. App. 3d 1118. We allowed Sheriff Kilquist's petition for leave to appeal (166 Ill. 2d R. 315) and now reverse the appellate court and affirm the circuit court.


Ehlers began her full-time employment with the Jackson County sheriff's department in March of 1986. She was a member of a collective- bargaining unit represented by the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police Labor Council. There is no dispute that a collective-bargaining agreement covered Ehlers and that her employment could be terminated only for cause. The Merit Commission was the entity empowered to determine whether cause for discharge existed.

On January 7, 1995, Sheriff Kilquist suspended Ehlers without pay and filed a complaint with the Merit Commission seeking her discharge. The complaint requested a hearing on three disciplinary charges against Ehlers. First, that on January 3, 1995, Ehlers failed to fully or truthfully comply with an order directing her to produce a report for the sheriff concerning visits by her husband at the jail on December 26, 1994, and how much time she had spent outside the jail while she was on duty on that date. Second, that on January 5, 1995, Ehlers presented the sheriff with a second untruthful or inaccurate report regarding those matters. Third, that on January 5, 1995, immediately after Ehlers delivered her second report to the sheriff in his office, Ehlers refused to obey the sheriff's verbal order that she remain in his office and talk with him about the foregoing matters.

The Merit Commission conducted a hearing on the three charges. The evidence presented showed that, on December 26, 1994, Ehlers worked the day shift at the jail. Ehlers' husband visited the jail sometime that afternoon, and they went outside to smoke cigarettes for 10 to 20 minutes. They then returned to the building and stood in the dispatch room for about 10 minutes before Ehlers returned to her duties. Ehlers' husband remained in the area for a short time speaking with other individuals whom he knew.

On January 3, 1995, Lieutenant Earl Jacquot, Ehlers' immediate supervising officer, informed Ehlers that the sheriff wanted a written report from her concerning how many times her husband had visited the jail on December 26 and how long he had stayed. Sheriff Kilquist explained in his testimony that he wanted this statement because he had heard rumors that Ehlers had been out of the jail for lengthy periods of time and that, as sheriff, he was required to look into the matter. He directed Jacquot to obtain a detailed statement from Ehlers.

In response to Jacquot's request, Ehlers submitted the following statement to the sheriff:

"This statement is being made as per ordered by Sheriff Kilquist and as advised to me by Lt. Earl Jacquot. On December 26, 1994, to the best of my knowledge and recollection, my husband, Curt, came to the Jail one time during the afternoon hours."

On January 5, 1995, Sheriff Kilquist instructed Jacquot to obtain a more detailed report from Ehlers. When Jacquot asked Ehlers to rewrite the report to provide additional details, she told him that she did not remember. Jacquot nevertheless directed Ehlers to write another report. Ehlers submitted the following as her second statement:

"On December 26, 1994, to the best of my knowledge and recollection, my husband, Curt, came to the Jail one time during the afternoon hours for a short period of time. I was out of the Jail at 1255 hours and back in at 1305 hours and out at 1440 hours and back in at 1450 hours of the 26th of December, 1994, as is recorded in the Central Control Officers log (see attached) on that date. I would note that the portion of the log from which these times are taken has been scribbled through several times."

Beneath her signature, Ehlers wrote, "I am making these statements under duress."

Ehlers testified that, after writing her second statement, she attempted to contact her union representative by telephone, but he was not available. Ehlers wanted to speak to the union representative because she felt that disciplinary action was going to be taken against her and she was concerned for her job.

Sheriff Kilquist then called Ehlers and requested her to bring the second statement to his office. Ehlers told the sheriff over the telephone that she felt she was being harassed, to which he responded that she was not. Ehlers asked Officer George Schaefer to accompany her to the sheriff's office. Schaefer was the vice president of her local union. Schaefer understood that Ehlers had requested him to accompany her because of his union position. Ehlers stated that she felt she needed a union representative present because she believed she "was going to possibly be interrogated for disciplinary reasons." The sheriff testified that he had "no intent whatsoever" to discipline Ehlers when he called her into his office, but just "wanted to find out what was going on."

Ehlers, Schaefer, and Sheriff Kilquist all testified about their meeting, and their testimony is the same in most respects. When Ehlers and Schaefer entered the sheriff's office, the sheriff was in an adjoining room. Ehlers said that she was placing the second report on his desk. The sheriff told Ehlers to sit down so he could speak to her and asked Schaefer to leave. Ehlers did not sit down. Ehlers testified she then told the sheriff that she wanted Schaefer present as her union representative. The sheriff again told Schaefer to leave, and he did so. Ehlers then told the sheriff that she would not speak to him without Schaefer present and turned to leave. The sheriff informed Ehlers that he would fire her if she left. As Ehlers left, she remarked that only the Merit Commission could fire her. The sheriff told Ehlers to go home.

Schaefer testified that, shortly after the meeting, Sheriff Kilquist told him that the meeting had started as "nothing," but was "totally blown up now." The sheriff's own report, written directly after the incident, stated that he had "advised Sergeant Ehlers that he was conducting an informal inquiry." Later, the sheriff suspended Ehlers without pay and filed the complaint with the Merit Commission seeking her dismissal.

The Merit Commission ultimately determined that the sheriff presented insufficient evidence to sustain the first two charges of the complaint. Those charges were dismissed and are not at issue in this appeal. The Merit Commission found, however, that the last charge against Ehlers, concerning her refusal to obey the sheriff's order that she sit in his office and speak with him, was sustained by the evidence.

The Merit Commission held a second hearing to determine what type of discipline to impose on Ehlers for the sustained charge. The Merit Commission issued a decision via written order. Therein, the Merit Commission found that the sheriff had lawfully ordered Ehlers to sit in his office and speak with him, and that Ehlers' refusal to do so constituted insubordination. The Merit Commission found in aggravation that Ehlers displayed no remorse for her insubordination, and that she had been disciplined on one prior occasion for failing to obey an order. The Merit Commission discharged Ehlers from her employment effective January 7, 1995.

Ehlers subsequently filed a complaint for administrative review with the circuit court. The circuit court confirmed the Merit Commission's decision, holding that the Merit Commission's discharge of Ehlers for her direct disobedience of the sheriff's order was not arbitrary or unreasonable.

The appellate court reversed. Relying on National Labor Relations Board v. J. Weingarten, Inc., 420 U.S. 251, 43 L. Ed. 2d 171, 95 S. Ct. 959 (1975), and Departments of Central Management Services & Corrections (Gerald Morgan), 1 Pub. Employee Rep. (Ill.) par. 2020, No. S-CA-54 (ISLRB September 13, 1985), the appellate court held that Ehlers had the right to have a union representative present with her at the meeting with the sheriff. Consequently, the appellate court reasoned, the sheriff's order to Ehlers that she remain in his office and speak to him without union representation was an unlawful order and Ehlers could not be discharged solely for disobeying an unlawful order. The appellate court ...

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