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Covell v. Menkis

February 8, 2010

GERALD COVELL, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
HARMON P. MENKIS, ET AL., DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois. No. 3:05-cv-03207-RM-BGC-Richard Mills, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Bauer, Circuit Judge

ARGUED NOVEMBER 5, 2009

Before BAUER, MANION and WILLIAMS, Circuit Judges.

After being terminated from his employment, Gerald Covell filed an action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The district court entered summary judgment for the Defendants. We affirm.

I. BACKGROUND

The Illinois Deaf and Hard of Hearing Commission ("IDHHC") is a state government agency that was established after the Illinois General Assembly passed the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Commission Act ("the Act") in 1996. IDHHC coordinates services for, and advocates on behalf of, deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals in Illinois. Gerald Covell became the Director of IDHHC in November 1998, and served in that capacity until August 8, 2003, when the IDHHC Commissioners (the "Defendants") voted to terminate him, effective immediately.

After being terminated, Covell filed suit, claiming that the Defendants violated his property and liberty interest rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, without due process. First, Covell maintains that he had a property interest in his employment, but was terminated without being afforded a required pre-termination hearing or any post-termination process to challenge his discharge. Second, Covell contends that the Defendants deprived him of his liberty interest in employment, by disseminating false information related to his termination without providing a name clearing hearing, and because of these stigmatizing disclosures, he suffered a tangible loss of other employment. Specifically, Covell alleges that the Defendants disclosed that he was terminated for viewing pornographic material on a state-issued laptop computer while on state time and altering his own time sheets.

In entering summary judgment for the Defendants, the district court concluded that Covell did not have a property interest in his position as Director of IDHHC and, based on the language of the Act and in the bylaws, Covell did not have an objectively reasonable basis for believing that he had such an interest. In the alternative, the district court held that even if Illinois law did give Covell a property interest in his position under Illinois law, that law was not clearly established, and accordingly, the Defendants were entitled to qualified immunity. Further, the district court held that Covell could not prevail on his liberty interest claim because he could not show that any individual Defendant publicly disseminated any stigmatizing information regarding his termination. Covell timely filed this appeal.

II. DISCUSSION

We review the district court's grant of summary judgment de novo, construing all facts and reasonable inferences in Covell's favor. Winsley v. Cook County, 563 F.3d 598, 602 (7th Cir. 2009). Summary judgment is proper if the pleadings, discovery materials, disclosures, and affidavits demonstrate no genuine issue of material fact such that the Defendants are entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed R. Civ. P. 56(c).

A. Property Interest

In order to make his due process claim, Covell must first demonstrate that he had a constitutionally protected property interest. Rujawitz v. Martin, 561 F.3d 685, 688 (7th Cir. 2009) (citing Border v. City of Crystal Lake, 75 F.3d 270, 273 (7th Cir. 1996)); Moss v. Martin, 473 F.3d 694, 700 (7th Cir. 2007). A person's interest in a benefit, such as continued employment, constitutes "property" for due process purposes only if "there are such rules or mutually explicit understandings that support his claim of entitlement to the benefit." Border, 75 F.3d at 273. A protected property interest in employment can arise from a statute, regulation, municipal ordinance, or an express or implied contract, such as "rules or understandings that secure certain benefits and that support claims of entitlement to those benefits." Border, 75 F.3d at 273 (citations omitted).

Since Covell was employed in Illinois, we look to Illinois law to determine whether he had a substantive property interest in his employment with IDHHC. Moss, 473 F.3d at 700. Under Illinois law, a person has a property interest in his job where he has a legitimate expectation of continued employment based on a legitimate claim of entitlement. Id. (citations omitted). "To show a legitimate expectation of continued employment, a plaintiff must show a specific ordinance, state law, contract or under-standing limiting the ability of the state or state entity to discharge ...


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