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Boehl v. Deluca

February 16, 2007

ROBERT BOEHL, PLAINTIFF,
v.
ANTHONY DELUCA AND CITY OF JUDGE REBECCA R. PALLMEYER CHICAGO HEIGHTS, A MUNICIPAL CORPORATION, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rebecca R. Pallmeyer United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Robert Boehl, a former supervisor in the Public Works Department of the City of Chicago Heights ("Chicago Heights" or the "City"), brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Chicago Heights and Mayor Antony DeLuca (collectively, "Defendants"). Boehl alleges that Defendants violated his First Amendment rights by terminating him in retaliation for his support of a rival mayoral candidate. Defendants have moved for summary judgment on Boehl's claim, and for the reasons explained below, Defendants' motion is granted.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND*fn1

A. The Chicago Heights Mayoral Election of 2003

In November 2002, Angelo Ciambrone, mayor of Chicago Heights since 1995, decided not to seek another term. (Def.'s 56.1 ¶¶ 19-20.) Several candidates entered the subsequent mayoral race, including Ciambrone's chief of staff Paulnita Rees, David Zerante, Defendant DeLuca, and three others. (Id. ¶¶ 20-21.) In Chicago Heights, candidates for elected office run under nonpartisan organizational names, such as "Renaissance," "FUEL," and "Change." (Id. ¶ 17.) DeLuca ran as the "Change" candidate. (Id. ¶ 18.)

One of the key issues in the 2003 mayoral campaign was Chicago Heights' growing financial crisis. (Id. ¶ 49.) During the Ciambrone administration, employee salaries and benefits constituted one of the major expenses of the City's budget. (Id. ¶ 38.) Employee health care costs were rising dramatically; Stacie Foster, a Human Resources employee who dealt with City employees' health insurance issues, asserted those costs were "'killing'" the City. (Id. ¶ 39 (quoting S. Foster Dep., Ex. 19 to Def.'s 56.1, at 107).) At the same time, revenue was declining due to losses in commercial business and in the City's industrial base. (Id. ¶ 52.) Ciambrone had attempted to bring new businesses to Chicago Heights and to convince existing businesses to stay, but these efforts were insufficient to cure the City's budget crisis. (Id. ¶¶ 41, 43.) In March 2002, City Treasurer Joan Bauer projected a deficit of more than $3.7 million for the fiscal year 2002-2003. (Id. ¶ 45.)

Each of the candidates in the 2003 mayoral campaign offered a different solution to Chicago Heights' financial problems. Rees proposed bringing new business into the City, rather than cutting expenses, and Zerante said he would try to "redo" outstanding municipal bonds. (Id. ¶ 50 (citing Rees Dep., Ex. 23 to Def.'s 56.1, at 52-53).) DeLuca promised to "run [the City] like a business." (Id. (quoting Zerante Dep., Ex. 28 to Def.'s 56.1, at 83).) All the candidates acknowledged that in order to maintain financial stability, they would at some point be forced to reduce the City's payroll. (Id. ¶ 53 (citing Foster Dep., Ex. 18 to Def.'s 56.1, at 383).)

Rees entered the race in order to run against Zerante, (id. ¶ 22), whom she did not trust due to a poor experience working with him when Zerante was an alderman, (id. ¶ 31), and who had made her "very angry" at times. (Rees Dep., at 130-31.) Rees did not view herself as running against DeLuca. (Def.'s 56.1 ¶ 22.) In a February 2003 "run-off" primary to choose two candidates for the general election, Zerante and DeLuca received the most votes. (Id. ¶ 25.) Both then asked for Rees' support. (Id. ¶ 26.) Rees told DeLuca and others that she could not support Zerante because she did not trust him. (Id. ¶¶ 29-31.) Nonetheless, a week before the general election, in April 2003, Rees, in a letter to the editor of the local newspaper, wrote that she would vote for Zerante because she was a registered Democrat.*fn2 (Id. ¶ 33.)

DeLuca won the April 2003 general election, and was sworn in as mayor of Chicago Heights on May 5, 2003. (Id. ¶¶ 2, 19.) The following day, DeLuca's campaign manager Dan Proft replaced Rees as chief of staff. (Id. ¶ 62, 64.) Rees characterized her termination meeting with DeLuca as "'very cordial, very nice, no problem.'" (Id. ¶ 63 (quoting Rees Dep., Ex. 23 to Def.'s 56.1, at 67).)

In the month preceding DeLuca's taking office, DeLuca and Proft had investigated and gathered information about the financial health of the City. (Id. ¶ 60.) DeLuca viewed the situation as "grim. . . . financially, operationally, and developmentally." (Id. (quoting DeLuca Dep., Ex. 17 to Def.'s 56.1, at 18-19).) Proft predicted a $4 million deficit for the fiscal year 2003-2004. (Id. ¶ 61.) On May 23, 2003, City Treasurer Bauer, in a memo to DeLuca, informed the new mayor that the City had posted a $2 million deficit for 2002-2003 and warned that "[s]pending must continue to be curtailed" because the new budget was "still $4 [million] short."*fn3 (Id. ¶ 65; Memo from Bauer to DeLuca of May 23, 2003, Ex. 9 to Def.'s 56.1, at CH 1021.) The DeLuca administration viewed the deficit as caused by, among other things, a large number of municipal employees and employees with duplicative jobs. (Def.'s 56.1 ¶ 67.)

According to Defendants, DeLuca "immediately began to attempt to identify and trim the employee roster of positions that could be absorbed by present personnel." (Id. ¶ 68.) Boehl admits only that employees were terminated, and asserts that DeLuca also hired several new employees after becoming mayor. (Pl.'s 56.1 ¶ 68.) The parties agree that because many Chicago Heights employees were covered by union contracts, it was easier and less restrictive to eliminate non-union positions. (Def.'s 56.1 ¶¶ 69-70.) By April 2005, the City employed thirty-four fewer employees than it had in April 2003, reducing the number of employees from 318 to 284.*fn4 (Id. ¶¶ 226-27.) According to Defendants, this resulted in savings of $1 to $2 million.*fn5 (Id. ¶ 229.)

B. Boehl's Employment and Termination

An initial target of the DeLuca administration was the Public Works Department, which Ciambrone had created in 1999 to oversee several other municipal departments, including the Water Department, the Streets & Sewers Department, and the Maintenance Department.*fn6 (Id. ¶ 74; Pl.'s 56.1 ¶ 144.) Ciambrone had appointed Douglas Foster, who had been the Superintendent of the Water Department, as Director of the Public Works Department in 2000. (Def.'s 56.1 ¶¶ 72-74.) Foster earned one of the highest salaries in the City. (Id. ¶ 76.)

Plaintiff Boehl began working for Chicago Heights in 1983 as a laborer in the Water Department. (Id. ¶ 132.) He left to work for a private company in 1987, (id.), but was rehired in 1995 in the same position, (Id. ¶ 133), and, in 1997, became a foreman in the Water Department. (Id. ¶ 134.) In 2001, Boehl became a supervisor in the newly-created Public Works Department. (Id. ¶¶ 135-36.) His duties in that position included advising Foster, relaying information to Foster from the other department heads, filling in for the individual department heads when they were absent, operating equipment if there were manpower shortages, reprimanding employees, and speaking with unions. (Id. ¶ 137; Pl.'s Dep., Ex. 13 to Def.'s 56.1, at 115-17.) In his deposition, Boehl testified that he was "a jack-of-all trades." (Pl.'s Dep., at 116.)

After the 2003 mayoral election, the DeLuca administration determined that Foster's responsibilities and those of the Public Works Department were duplicative of other departments and that the work could be absorbed by those other departments. (Def.'s 56.1¶ 75.) Foster was terminated during the first week of the new administration, and the position of Director of Public Works was eliminated. (Id. ¶¶ 77, 80.) Eventually, DeLuca created three positions: Director of Water, Director of Streets & Sewers, and Director of Maintenance. (Id. ¶ 80.) Before Ciambrone's creation of the Public Works Department and Foster's appointment as its Director in 2000, the heads of these departments had been titled "Superintendents."*fn7 (Id.)

In late May 2003, Proft told a meeting of Public Works Department supervisors and department heads, including Boehl, that the new administration would be making changes but wanted to keep "key people." (Id. ¶ 138; Pl.'s Dep., at 124-25.) While the administration evaluated departments, Boehl temporarily was made head of the building maintenance department.*fn8 (Def.'s 56.1 ¶ 140.) The DeLuca administration received "mixed reviews" concerning Boehl's supervisory skills during this evaluation period.*fn9 (Id. ¶ 141 (citing Proft Dep., at 86-88).) In July 2003, Boehl recalls, Proft told him that Harold Fosten would become the head of building maintenance. (Pl.'s Dep., at 135-137.) Proft did not tell Boehl what his position would be after Fosten took over. (Id. at 135-36.) According to Boehl, Proft told him to "keep [his] head low" as Proft tried to find a different position for Boehl, perhaps operating a backhoe. (Id. at 136.)

Proft advised Boehl of his termination on August 5, 2003. (Def.'s¶ 143; Proft Dep., at 88-89.) According to Defendants, Boehl was terminated because the work performed by the Public Works Department was duplicative of work performed by other departments. (Def.'s 56.1 ¶ 144.) Boehl denies this; citing to his deposition testimony, he asserts that the Public Works Department was created "for better communication and integration of personnel," and that his job as a supervisor entailed "taking the reins and making sure the water, sewers, and streets were maintained the way the city wanted them maintained . . . ." (Pl's 56.1 ¶ 144 (citing Pl.'s Dep., at 110-16, 135-37).) Defendants further assert that no one replaced Boehl. (Def.'s 56.1 ¶ 144.) Boehl purports to dispute this assertion by noting that Harold Fosten replaced him as head of building maintenance. (Pl.'s 56.1 ¶ 144.) Boehl admits, however, that his assignment to the building maintenance position was temporary, (id. ¶¶ 139-40; Pl.'s Dep., at 128-30); moreover, both Boehl and Proft testified that at Boehl's termination meeting with Proft on August 5, 2003, Proft told Boehl that his position as a public works supervisor was being eliminated. (Pl.'s Dep., at 146-48; Proft Dep., at 89.)

The parties dispute whether Boehl was offered a different position. Boehl asserts that he asked Proft during the termination meeting about returning to work as a foreman, and Proft replied that the City was "not hiring at this time." (Pl.'s 56.1 ¶ 142 (citing Pl.'s Dep., at 147-48).) According to Defendants, however, Proft had asked the union whether Boehl could return to work as a foreman at his current rate of pay, but the union had advised him that Boehl would have to start over at an entry-level laborer position. (Def.'s 56.1 ¶ 142; Proft Dep., at 89-90.) Defendants assert that Proft offered the entry-level position to Boehl, and he rejected it. (Def.'s 56.1 ¶ 142; Proft Dep., at 90.) In November 2003-three months after Boehl's termination-Boehl asserts that "there was a job posting for a working foreman in the street department."*fn10 (Pl.'s 56.1 ¶ 79.)

For many of the terminated employees, the DeLuca administration extended heath benefits, allowed employees to remain on the payroll until retirement benefits were vested, and/or allowed employees to use accumulated sick leave. (Def.'s 56.1 ¶¶ 206, 212-18.) When Boehl was terminated in August 2003, he needed four more months to be eligible for retirement benefits. (Id. ¶ 208.) The administration allowed Boehl to remain on the employee roster until January 15, 2004, in order for him to be eligible for his pension. (Id.) ...


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