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Zaremba v. Department of Vehicle Services

October 06, 2000

SANDRA ZAREMBA,
PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
V.
THE DEPARTMENT OF VEHICLE SERVICES OF THE OFFICE OF THE SECRETARY OF STATE OF ILLINOIS; GEORGE RYAN, AS SECRETARY OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS; MERIT COMMISSION OF THE OFFICE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS; AND RICHARD S. WILLIAMSON, AS CHAIRMAN, AND MONROE FLINN, SHARON ROBERTS, CHARLES E. SUMMERS, AND JAMES L. WRIGHT, AS COMMISSIONERS OF THE MERIT COMMISSION OF THE OFFICE OF THE SECRETARY OF STATE OF ILLINOIS,
DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. No. 98 CH 13798 The Honorable Michael B. Getty Presiding Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Buckley

In September 1995, the Secretary of State (SOS) Department of Vehicles Services (DVS) suspended plaintiff Sandra Zaremba, without pay. In October 1995, plaintiff received an official notice of discharge and filed a written request for a hearing before the Merit Commission (Commission). The Commission determined that the discharge was proper. In October 1998, plaintiff sought judicial review in the circuit court. In June 1999, the circuit court rejected the Commission's decision, finding that it was against the manifest weight of the evidence and that it was arbitrary and capricious. DVS appeals, arguing that (1) the Commission's decis-ion was not against the manifest weight of the evidence; and (2) sufficient cause existed to terminate plaintiff's employment. We affirm.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff began working at DVS in February 1975. Since approximately 1989, plaintiff worked as a "fleet cashier" or "fee clerk." As such, she processed bulk work submitted by professional remitters on behalf of car dealers, currency exchanges, fleet owners, and similar processors of large quantities of vehicle title and registration documents. She worked with three or four other fleet cashiers at the Charles Chew facility in Chicago. Fleet cashiers do not serve the general public but, rather, work with seven or eight professional remitters. A remitter's duties include retrieving title and license applications from currency exchanges and automobile dealerships and taking them to the Secretary of State for processing by the fleet cashiers. Although remitters are not DVS employees, they generally work closely with the same fleet cashiers all day every day. The record indicates that fleet cashiers do not interact with the general public. Additionally, their duties are not discretionary but, rather, administrative in nature. Aside from the instant controversy, no evidence exists in the record indicating that plaintiff has been a bad employee.

Michael and Sheila Davis (married) worked as remitters at the Chew facility. In early 1995, SOS discovered that Michael was cheating the State by changing the dates on applications to take personal advantage of a fee change. The State prosecuted Michael but accepted a plea agreement. Pursuant to the agreement, Michael would assist SOS in investigating allegations that fleet workers were accepting bribes. The record does not indicate whether those allegations came from Michael or another source. In any case, SOS assigned one of its police officers, Craig Moss, to work undercover in the Chew facility. In March or April 1995, Michael brought Moss to the Chew facility and introduced him as Sheila's cousin. Michael told everyone that Moss was down on his luck and that he decided to give Moss a job in his remitting business.

Moss spent six months conducting an investigation at the Chew facility. In September 1995, based on Moss' investigation, DVS formally suspended plaintiff without pay, alleging that she accepted $175 from Moss (spread over eight separate occasions between April 1995 and June 1995), knowing or reasonably believing such money was tendered as an inducement to perform her normal work duties. Specifically, DVS alleged that, by accepting money from Moss, plaintiff violated several provisions of the Secretary of State's Policy Manual. The pertinent provisions include:

"Employees and contractors of the Secretary of State in performance of their duties, execute a public trust which requires their adherence to the highest possible standards of ethical conduct. Adherence to such conduct will promote the courteous, efficient, professional and lawful delivery of service to the citizens of Illinois. Furthermore, the specific standards are to be followed by all employees of the office. Violations of any standards are grounds for disciplinary actions and possible discharge." Policy Manual, ch. 1, no. 1, Code of Ethical Conduct.

"Employees and contractors of the Secretary of State shall: (a) obey all laws, ordinances, rules and regulations *** and (d) not use their respective official positions or knowledge acquired through such official positions for personal gain." Policy Manual, art. 4, Lawfulness.

"The following specific acts of conduct may result in discipline up to and including discharge: *** (b) any conduct or action taken to use the employee's official position for personal gain or influence *** and (m) soliciting or accepting any gratuity, gift, present or reward or other thing of value in return for the performance of the employees' official duties, or as a condition for not performing such duties." Policy Manual, art. 5, Standards."

In October 1995, plaintiff received her official notice of dis-charge and filed a written request for a hearing before the Commission.

In June 1998, the Commission conducted a hearing on plaintiff's case. At the hearing, the administrative law judge (ALJ) granted DVS' motion to amend the charges against plaintiff to add that (1) on May 2, 1995, plaintiff was offered money to make up for a cash shortage in her drawer and, while she did not accept the money, she failed to report the incident as an attempted bribe; and (2) on May 26, 1995, plaintiff failed to report an attempted bribe of $40. Also at the hearing, the parties stipulated that the State indicted plaintiff for her alleged misconduct and that she was acquitted.

Moss testified at the hearing and described plaintiff's conduct on each of the eight occasions on which he gave her money. According to Moss, on April 18, 1995, plaintiff asked Michael Davis whether he would buy lunch that day. Davis gave plaintiff $30 and told her to "buy the girls lunch with it." Plaintiff testified differently. She claimed that Moss offered her money that day but she declined. She further stated:

"He said, 'Sandra, you did a really great job.' He had the money, and I looked at him. I grabbed him by the arm and took him to Michael. I said, 'Michael, [Moss] is looking for you. He was about to give me some money for doing a good job. Would you tell him that we can't accept money for doing our jobs?'

I told him, '[Moss], you told us to eat pizza the other day, but we all bought that pizza together. We are friends here. Michael and I were friends for a long time, and we eat a lot together sometimes.' I said, '[y]ou are welcome to be a part of that if you want; but if you feel like paying me to do my job, then don't offer me anything.' "

According to plaintiff, she did not really believe that Moss was trying to bribe her. Rather, she merely thought he was being grateful. She also testified that she later told her supervisor, Darneather Murph-Heath, about the incident.

Moss also testified that, on April 25, 1995, he gave plaintiff $20 and told her that it was "to buy the cashier's breakfast." He told her to "split it up amongst the girls." Plaintiff testified that she had already been taking orders for breakfast and collecting money when she asked Moss if he wanted anything. Moss told her that he and Michael wanted to buy breakfast for everyone. Plaintiff further testified ...


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