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Walters v. Village of Colfax

December 11, 2006


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Michael M. Mihm United States District Judge


Plaintiff Michael Walters ["Walters"] has brought this action against the Village of Colfax ["the Village"], Gary Milton ["Milton"], the Village Mayor, and Laurence Baker ["Baker], a member of the Village Board of Trustees, alleging that the defendants' conduct has violated his rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Illinois state law. Before the Court are cross Motions for Summary Judgment. For reasons set forth below, Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment [#16] is GRANTED with respect to Walters' federal claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and state law claim for breach of contract. Walters' Motion for Summary Judgment [#23] is DENIED. The court declines to retain jurisdiction over Walters' state law claim of "Unlawful Termination Under State Law" and therefore, it is DISMISSED without prejudice so that it may be re-filed in state court.


The Court has jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331, as the Complaint presents federal questions involving deprivation of constitutional rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.


With very minor exception, the parties agree on the facts of this case and that summary judgment is appropriate. The dispute, of course, concerns who should prevail. Walters was first appointed to serve as Village of Colfax police chief in 1994. On June 3, 2002, Walters entered into an employment contract with the Village. The contract was also signed by the Village mayor at that time, Gordon Ehlers, and provided that Walters would serve as chief of police for a period of ten years, unless terminated for any of the reasons specified in the contract. This contract had been approved by the Village Board before its execution. However, under the Illinois Municipal Code, the Village was forbidden from entering into a contract whose duration would exceed the term of the mayor holding office at the time of the contract's execution. See 65 ILCS 5/3.1-30-5(c); 65 ILCS 5/8-1-7(b). In this case, Ehler's term began in 2001 and was set to expire in April 2005, so the contract's ten-year term well exceeded the statutory limit.

Certain Village positions, including street superintendent, village clerk, and police chief, are filled by annual appointment. During the first week of May each year, the Village Board would meet to vote on appointments. Though it is not entirely clear from the record, these appointments would apparently run through April 30 of the following year. In Walters' recollection over his many years as Police Chief, no Village official has ever failed to be reappointed at one of these meetings. Even though Walters' June 2002 employment contract purported to guarantee him employment through 2012, he was still officially "reappointed" at the May 2003 Board meeting, as he was each May before.

At a Village Board meeting on May 3, 2004, Ehlers cut short his term of office and resigned as Mayor. The Village Board of Trustees nominated defendant Milton to serve the remainder of Ehlers' term. Because of Ehlers' announcement, the May 3 meeting was recessed until May 13, when the appointments were to be considered. Walters testified that before the May 13 meeting began, one of the Village police officers, Richie Cooper, informed Walters that certain Board members had asked Cooper to accept the position of police chief. At the meeting, Milton did in fact appoint Richie Cooper to serve as chief of police. The Board voted against his appointment. Later at the meeting, Walters was nominated to serve an additional one-year term as police chief; however, the majority of the Board voted against reappointing Walters as police chief. Apparently, the meeting was adjourned before anyone was voted and approved to serve as police chief. The parties dispute whether, under Illinois law and Village ordinances, the actions at the meeting constituted Walters' immediate termination or merely his non-reappointment to continue service in the upcoming fiscal year.

Before the May 2004 Board meetings, Walters had never been advised that his employment contract was not valid or that he had given cause for termination of his contract. Walters also alleges that before the May 13 Village Board meeting, Defendants Baker and Milton held meetings in private and discussed how to get rid of Walters.

Either at the meeting of May 13 or soon after, two Village police officers resigned for reasons not explained in the parties' pleadings.

Later on May 13, after the meeting, Walters received a call from a McLean County 9-1-1 dispatcher. Walters informed the dispatcher that the Village's police department had "just quit." The exchange was as follows:

Dispatcher: You've got an armed subject, two of them actually, at 320 E. Main Street. Two kids in the backyard of the residence shooting guns. They believe they are shooting squirrels and rabbits. Both are white males, approximately 12 years of age.

Walters: Well, you'll have to call the county because our police department just quit.

Dispatcher: Really?

Walters: Really. So . . . you got a . . . get a deputy out here to get the two armed suspects.

Dispatcher: Thank you.

Walters: Bye.

Def.'s Exhibit F, at 3-4.

Walters filed this action on August 23, 2004. The heart of Walters' claims is that the 2002 employment contract with the Village was valid and created a constitutionally protected property interest in his position as police chief. The complaint directs four counts against the Village, alleging (1) breach of contract, (2) deprivation of a property interest under contract in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, (3) unlawful termination under Illinois law, and (4) deprivation of a property interest under state law in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The complaint directs one count against Milton, alleging that he terminated Walters and deprived Walters of his constitutionally protected property interest in employment in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The complaint also directs one count against Baker under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that he conspired to terminate Walters in violation of Walters' constitutionally protected interest in his employment.

Defendants collectively moved for Summary Judgment on August 10, 2006, arguing, in part, that the operation of various sections of the Illinois code and interpretive case law entitle them to judgment as a matter of law because the employment contract was invalid in that the Village could not contract to employ Walters beyond Ehlers' term of office. Defendants also argue that the undisputed material facts establish that Walters was not terminated, but rather that he was merely not reappointed and that his actions after his non-reappointment constitute abandonment of his position. Defendants also claim absolute legislative immunity, or in the alternative, qualified immunity, for Milton and Baker. On September 1, 2006, Walters filed his response to Defendants' Motion, and his own cross Motion for Summary Judgment, arguing instead that the application of the law to the undisputed facts warrants judgment in his favor. The matter is now fully briefed, and this Order follows.


Summary judgment should be granted where "the pleadings and other admissible evidence show there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). The moving party has the responsibility of informing the court of portions of the record or affidavits that demonstrate the absence of a triable issue. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). The moving party may meet its burden of showing that there are no disputed material facts by demonstrating "that there is an absence of evidence to support the non-moving party's case." Id. at 325. Any doubt as to the existence of a ...

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