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McReynolds v. Martin

August 14, 2007


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Harold A. Baker, Judge Presiding


On January 13, 2006, the plaintiff, Kevin A. McReynolds ("McReynolds") brought this suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Orville "Punch" Martin ("Martin") in his individual capacity and in his official capacity as the Marrowbone Township Highway Commissioner ("Commissioner"). McReynolds alleges that he was fired from the Marrowbone Township Highway Commission ("Commission") on the basis of political affiliation in violation of his First Amendment rights, made application to state action under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Martin has moved for summary judgment. For the following reasons, his motion is granted.

I. Background

The Commission is a two-person operation consisting of the Commissioner and one full-time employee.*fn1 The Commissioner is elected every four years under Illinois law, 605 ILCS 5/6-116, and has general charge of the roads in his district. See 605 ILCS 5/6-201 et seq. The employee is unelected and has no official title or written job description. From 1989 until May 2005, McReynolds' father, Robert Arthur McReynolds, served as the Commissioner. From 1994 until May 2005, McReynolds worked for his father as the Commission's full-time employee. During that time, his duties consisted of manual labor such as maintaining and repairing roads.

Commissioner McReynolds announced that he would retire in April or May 2005, and McReynolds hoped to succeed his father as Commissioner. He campaigned unsuccessfully against Martin for the Republican nomination. Following defeat in the Republican caucus, McReynolds procured enough signatures to run against Martin as an independent candidate in the April 5 general election. Martin defeated McReynolds again in the general election and took office on May 2.

Shortly after the election, Martin approached McReynolds to say he would not need McReynolds after he became Commissioner. McReynolds, suspecting he had been fired, requested written confirmation. In a letter of April 21, Martin formally terminated McReynolds' employment with the Commission, effective May 2. One week after taking office, Martin hired his friend David Gillmore to fill McReynolds' former post. Martin verbally authorized Gillmore to speak for the Commissioner at public events, make emergency decisions, order parts, repair equipment, and access Commission files.

The plaintiff filed the present action in January 2006, arguing that the First Amendment protected him, as a non-policymaking laborer, from political discharge. He seeks reinstatement, back pay, compensatory damages, attorney's fees, and punitive damages.

In his summary judgment motion, Martin argues that government officials may fire employees for whom political loyalty is an appropriate job qualification, and that McReynolds held such a job.*fn2 Alternatively, as an elected official, Martin claims he is entitled to qualified immunity from suit because the law did not clearly establish at the time that dismissing McReynolds for political reasons would violate the law.

II. Discussion

Summary judgment is appropriate where "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and . . . the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). A fact is material if it will "affect th[e] outcome of the suit . . . ." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A dispute is genuine if the evidence about the fact is such that "a reasonable jury could return a verdict in favor of the nonmoving party." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. To prevail, the moving party must show "an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325 (1986). To prevent summary judgment, the nonmoving party must show the existence of a genuine dispute of material fact. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. When evaluating the evidence, courts must draw "all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-movant." Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 149-50 (2000).

For the purpose of this motion, the court assumes that political affiliation was a basis for Martin's firing McReynolds. See supra note 2. That leaves the single question whether McReynolds' former position requires political affiliation, and is therefore subject to patronage dismissal without infringement of his constitutional rights.

The First Amendment protects public employees from discharge on the basis of "political affiliation unless the nature of [the] job makes political loyalty a valid qualification." Riley v. Blagojevich, 425 F.3d 357, 359 (7th Cir. 2005); see also Branti v. Finkel, 445 U.S. 507, 518 (1980); Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347, 372 (1976). The reason for this exception to freedom of speech is that "[y]ou cannot run a government with officials who are forced to keep political enemies" in key and trusted positions. Soderbeck v. Burnett County, 752 F.2d 285, 288 (7th Cir. 1985). In other words, the exception minimizes the "adverse impact on the effective functioning of government." Soderbeck, 752 F.2d at 288. The Supreme Court in Branti stated the test: any employee may be fired if "the hiring authority can demonstrate that party affiliation is an appropriate requirement for the effective performance of the public office involved." 445 U.S. at 518.

The vast majority of legitimate patronage dismissals under Branti involve "policymaking" and "confidential" positions. Kiddy-Brown v. Blagojevich, 408 F.3d 346, 355 (7th Cir. 2005). An office involves policymaking if it authorizes "meaningful input into government decisionmaking on issues where there is room for principled disagreement on goals or their implementation." Kiddy-Brown, 408 F.3d at 355. "Confidential" is a catchall designation for "government employees who, while not decision makers, are in close contact with policymakers " and their records, and ...

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