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Whitehouse v. Piazza

February 28, 2007

JOEL WHITEHOUSE, ELIANA WHITEHOUSE AND JUSTIN WHITEHOUSE, MINOR CHILDREN OF JOEL WHITEHOUSE, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
MAYOR JOHN PIAZZA, CHIEF OF POLICE, KEVIN SHAUGHNESSY, UNKNOWN LEMONT POLICE OFFICERS, AND THE VILLAGE OF LEMONT, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Nan R. Nolan

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

On February 22, 2005, Joel Whitehouse's eight-year-old son, Justin, complained that the seven-year-old son of Lemont, Illinois Mayor John Piazza had hit and scratched him while riding home on a school bus. At the time, Whitehouse was campaigning for public office as a trustee for the Village of Lemont, and was part of a political group that opposed Mayor Piazza. When Piazza showed up at Whitehouse's home three days later, an otherwise minor spat turned into a federal case. On March 21, 2005, Joel Whitehouse filed suit alleging that Piazza and Lemont Police Chief Kevin Shaughnessy retaliated against him for exercising his First Amendment right to political speech, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Whitehouse further charged Piazza with assault, battery, and trespass, and named Justin and his daughter Eliana (approximately seven years old) as Plaintiffs to a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress. Whitehouse finally alleged that the Village of Lemont is liable to Plaintiffs for Chief Shaughnessy's actions under the Illinois Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act, 745 ILCS 10/9-102.

The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). Defendants have each filed separate motions for summary judgment seeking dismissal of all Plaintiffs' claims. For the reasons set forth here, the motions are granted.

BACKGROUND*fn1

Whitehouse is a licensed Illinois attorney who worked as an assistant state's attorney at the Cook County State's Attorney's Office from 1984 to 1993. He is currently self employed as a criminal defense attorney and private detective, and he lives in Lemont, Illinois with his wife, Dr. Jamie Lynn Stalker, and their two minor children, Justin and Eliana Whitehouse. (Def. Facts ¶¶ 3, 13.)*fn2 Piazza, also a Lemont resident, has served as the Village's Mayor since April 2001. (Id. ¶ 4.) Shaughnessy has served as Lemont's Chief of Police since January 4, 2004 and has more than 26 years of experience in police work. The Village selected Shaughnessy from among a pool of candidates that was created by an independent search firm, and his appointment was confirmed by Mayor Piazza. (Id. ¶ 5; Pl. Facts ¶ 1.)*fn3 Shaughnessy understood that he was not employed under a contract and that decisions concerning his employment were to be made by the Village board, which consisted of individuals who were on the same political ticket as Piazza. (Pl. Facts ¶ 13; Shaughnessy Dep., at 27-28.)

A. The Political Backdrop

In 2003, Whitehouse campaigned to become a trustee for the Village of Lemont. His bid for public office was unsuccessful, but he decided to run for trustee a second time between January and April 2005. In this second campaign, Whitehouse ran as part of the "Citizens of Lemont for Good Government" campaign, a political group opposed to Mayor Piazza, who was also up for re-election that year. (Def. Facts ¶¶ 14, 15.)

B. The February 22, 2005 Bus Dispute

On February 22, 2005, while Whitehouse's campaign was underway, eight-year-old Justin Whitehouse complained that Piazza's seven-year-old son had hit and scratched him during a ride home on a school bus. (Id. ¶¶ 16-18.) Whitehouse called the school principal, Patricia Vidinich, and asked to see a copy of the videotape that recorded the boys' bus ride together. (Id. ¶ 19.) At the time, Whitehouse was characterizing the incident as an assault and/or battery. According to Ms. Vidinich, Whitehouse told her he thought the incident was "political" because he was running for office against Piazza. (Id. ¶ 19; Ex. 2 to Whitehouse Dep., at 0028.) Indeed, Whitehouse's wife sent Ms. Vidinich an email message stating that "there is tension related to [the upcoming election] and prevents me from doing the usual neighborly thing," i.e., calling the parents directly. (Ex. 2 to Whitehouse Dep., at 0029.)

In any event, Ms. Vidinich informed Whitehouse that pursuant to the school district's policy, school bus videotapes are for internal use only. (Def. Facts ¶¶ 20, 21.) Whitehouse was not satisfied with this response and told Ms. Vidinich that he "was going to sue everybody and call Channel 5." (Whitehouse Dep., at 90; Vidinich Dep., at 30.) When Whitehouse received the same response from Sharon Phelan, the Transportation Director for Lemont-Bromberek School District 113A, he again became upset, raised his voice, and threatened to call the newspapers and sue. (Phelan Dep., at 44-49.) Whitehouse next contacted the Cook County State's Attorney's Office in the early afternoon of February 25, 2002 to express his concern that the school bus videotape had been, or was going to be destroyed. Whitehouse reported his belief that the tape might show potentially criminal conduct by Piazza's first-grade son, and his intention to notify the police if the tape showed an "outright beating."*fn4 (Def. Facts ¶ 23.)

C. The February 25, 2005 Confrontation

It is clear from Whitehouse's actions that he was upset about the bus ride incident, and it appears that Piazza was as well. Indeed, it is undisputed that Piazza drove over to Whitehouse's home on the evening of February 25, 2005 to discuss the incident, and that Whitehouse ended up calling 911 and attempting to file charges against Piazza. The specific details of the encounter, however, are hotly disputed.

Whitehouse claims that he was out playing with his kids in the garage and organizing items in his car when Piazza drove up, parked his car with the two passenger-side wheels on the driveway, and walked briskly onto the driveway towards Whitehouse, smelling of alcohol. (Whitehouse Dep., at 121-22, 126; Pl. Facts ¶¶ 2, 3, 6.) Justin was playing in the garage at the time, and Eliana was sitting in the car looking out the back window. (Pl. Facts ¶ 7; Whitehouse Dep., at 121.) According to Whitehouse, Piazza yelled at him to leave the kids out of the election, swore at him, chest-bumped him three times, and tried to provoke a fight by stating that he was going to "kick Whitehouse's fucking ass." (Def. Facts ¶ 25; Pl. Facts ¶¶ 4, 5.) Whitehouse instructed his children to get inside the house and told Piazza several times to leave his premises. Piazza responded by saying "make me," so Whitehouse called 911 for police assistance, seeking to have Piazza arrested. Piazza then got in his car and drove away. (Pl. Facts ¶¶ 5,6.)

Piazza disagrees with Whitehouse's characterization of this interaction. He explains that he drove to the Whitehouse residence after his wife told him about Whitehouse's attempts to obtain the bus videotapes. Piazza and his wife both felt that Whitehouse was going after the kids as part of his campaign, and Piazza wanted to ask Whitehouse to leave the children out of the political race. (Def. Facts ¶¶ 92, 93; Piazza Dep., at 80.) Piazza denies that he assaulted or battered Whitehouse and emphasizes that he left when Whitehouse threatened to call 911. (Id. ¶ 27, 97.) Piazza and Whitehouse do agree that the entire interaction lasted between three and five minutes. (Id. ¶ 28; Whitehouse Dep., at 128; Def. Resp. ¶¶ 3, 4.)*fn5

D. The 911 Call

The Lemont Police Department received Whitehouse's 911 call at 4:16 p.m. Sergeant Jerrold Lehmacher, an officer with 18 years of experience, was supervisor of the day shift that day and was scheduled to be the acting commander after 4:00 p.m. (Pl. Facts ¶¶ 10, 18.) Chief Shaughnessy, however, was still at the station when the call came in. (Def. Resp. ¶ 10.) In fact, before Shaughnessy even heard the dispatch, he received a cellular phone call from Piazza informing him of Whitehouse's 911 call. (Pl. Facts ¶ 11.) At the time, Shaughnessy knew that Whitehouse was running for trustee and was an opponent of Piazza's political party. (Id. ¶ 13.)

Lehmacher, too, realized that the 911 disturbance involved Whitehouse and Piazza and notified dispatch that he would respond to the call. (Id. ¶ 19.) Shaughnessy, however, called Lehmacher and said that he had already spoken with Piazza and wanted to meet with Lehmacher before he went to the Whitehouse residence. (Id. ¶¶ 14, 19, 20.) According to Defendants, it was not unusual for Shaughnessy to call Lehmacher, and Shaughnessy had information about the call that would be helpful, including the identity of the other party (i.e., Piazza). (Def. Facts ¶ 31; Def. Resp. ¶¶ 14, 19; Lehmacher Dep., at 28-29; Shaughnessy Dep., at 41.) Defendants also claim that Chief Shaughnessy had safety concerns because the 911 call was dispatched as being an incident "in-progress." (Def. Resp. ¶ 14; Shaughnessy Dep., at 36-37.) Whitehouse denies this, noting Lehmacher's testimony that he had never before received a call from Shaughnessy regarding a disturbance,*fn6 and Shaughnessy's testimony that the only information he had from Piazza was that Piazza "had some words with Whitehouse [so] expect a 911 call." (Lehmacher Dep., at 25, 28, 29; Shaughnessy Dep., at 18-20.) Notably, Defendants themselves admit that Lehmacher figured out on his own that the disturbance involved Piazza and Whitehouse based on the vehicle description and address, and that Lehmacher drove to the Whitehouse residence at a safe speed because he knew that this was not an 'in-progress" call. (Def. Facts ¶ 32; Pl. Facts ¶ 19; Def. Resp. ¶ 19.)

In any event, Lehmacher met Shaughnessy one block east of the park district about five to ten minutes after Piazza's call. (Pl. Facts ¶ 15.) The two men briefly discussed the situation and proceeded to the Whitehouse residence in separate cars. They arrived at 4:26 p.m., approximately ten minutes after the police first received the 911 call. (Def. Facts ¶¶ 29-31, 34.) Shortly thereafter, Officer Peter Moranda of the Lemont Police Department arrived at the residence as Shaughnessy and Lehmacher were taking Whitehouse's statement about the incident. (Id. ¶ 36.) Whitehouse told the officers that Piazza came onto his property, yelled at him, and bumped him in the chest to provoke a fight. (Id. ¶ 41; Pl. Facts ¶ 20.) Whitehouse also said that he wanted to file misdemeanor charges against Piazza for assault, battery and trespass. (Pl. Facts ¶ 21.) At the time, Whitehouse did not have any physical injuries and there were no visible indications of a physical confrontation at the scene. (Def. Facts ¶ 42.)

While Whitehouse was speaking with the police, his son Justin stepped out into the garage and stood behind a vehicle to observe what was transpiring. Justin could not hear what the men were saying, but Whitehouse ultimately saw his son and instructed him to come out and tell Chief Shaughnessy about the incident with Piazza. (Id. ¶¶ 44-46.) Shaughnessy and Lehmacher both objected that it was inappropriate to involve Justin in the matter due to his age. According to Justin, Chief Shaughnessy then came over to him and, before giving Justin a chance to recount the events from that evening, told him that nothing had happened except a friendly conversation between Piazza and Whitehouse. (Id. ¶¶ 48-51.) Justin testified that he was afraid of Chief Shaughnessy but he ...


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