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William Burruss, Chuck Canada, Paul Castellano, Joe Cedeno v. Cook County Sheriff's Office

March 9, 2011

WILLIAM BURRUSS, CHUCK CANADA, PAUL CASTELLANO, JOE CEDENO, LYONELL DAVIS, SAMUEL DIAZ, JR., RICHARD FEDDOR,
GREG HAYES, THOMAS IACOVETTI, MYRON JONES, LARRY KOWALUK, NELSON LEWIS, ANTHONY LORDO, RICHARD MESSINA, JOHN NAWARA, JOSHUA NORRIS, MICHAEL O'CONNELL, GLENN ROSS, JAVIER RUEDA, FLAMUR TRASHANI, MATT VLAHOS, HARRY WHEELER, INDIVIDUALLY, AND ON BEHALF OF ALL OTHERS SIMILARLY SITUATED, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
COOK COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE, THOMAS DART, IN HIS INDIVIDUAL CAPACITY,
SCOTT KURTOVICH, IN HIS INDIVIDUAL CAPACITY, DENNIS ANDREWS, IN HIS INDIVIDUAL CAPACITY, MICHAEL HOLMES, IN HIS INDIVIDUAL CAPACITY,
SALVADOR GODINEZ, IN HIS INDIVIDUAL CAPACITY, GILBERTO ROMERO, JR.,
THE COUNTY OF COOK, A UNIT OF LOCAL GOVERNMENT, DEFENDANTS.



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

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiffs are nineteen correctional officers at the Cook County Department of Corrections who were part of the now-defunct Special Operations Response Team ("SORT").*fn1 They bring this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Cook County, the Cook County Sheriff's Office, Sheriff Thomas Dart, as well as several other officials from the Cook County Department of Corrections.

Plaintiffs allege that Defendants violated their First Amendment rights by disbanding SORT in retaliation for Plaintiffs' support of Richard Remus, one of Defendant Dart's opponents in the 2006 election for Cook County Sheriff. Defendants have moved for summary judgment. For the following reasons, Defendants' motion is granted in part and denied in part.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

The following facts are drawn from the pleadings and the parties' Local Rule 56.1 submissions (hereinafter, "Defs.' 56.1" and "Pls.' 56.1").*fn2

I. The Parties

Plaintiffs are correctional officers who have been and remain employed at the Cook County Department of Corrections (hereinafter, "DOC"). (Defs.' 56.1 ¶ 1.) Defendant Thomas Dart has served as Cook County Sheriff since December 1, 2006. (Id. ¶ 4.) Defendant Dennis Andrews served as Assistant Executive Director of External Operations at the DOC from 2003 to 2006; he currently serves as a Captain in Division IV of the DOC. (Id. ¶ 6.) Defendant Michael Holmes served as Superintendent of External Operations at the DOC from 2006 to 2008; he currently works as an Administrative Duty Officer at the DOC. (Id. ¶ 7.) Defendant Salvador Godinez has served as Executive Director of the DOC since June 2006. (Id. ¶ 8.) Defendant Scott Kurtovich served as the acting Executive Director of the DOC from November 2004 to June 2006; he has since been promoted to First Assistant Executive Director. (Id. ¶ 5.) Defendant Gilberto Romero, Jr. served as Assistant Executive Director of the DOC from October 2006 to February 2007, and is now retired. (Id. ¶ 9; Romero Dep. 16.)

II. Creation of the Special Operations Response Team

The Special Operations Response Team ("SORT") was created in the mid-1990's and consisted of a cadre of specially trained officers who staffed multiple departments throughout the DOC. (Defs.' 56.1 ¶ 12.) The SORT was not a "bidded assignment"; instead, applicants had to pass through a boot camp in order to be selected. (Pls.' 56.1. ¶¶ 5-6.) Members of SORT were assigned a variety of different tasks, including transporting high risk inmates to other correctional facilities and court hearings, conducting "shake-downs" of prison cells for contraband, serving as firearms instructors at the training academy, assisting the Chicago Police Department during protests, and patrolling the perimeter of the DOC compound. (Pls.' 56.1 ¶ 11.) While Defendants contend that selection to serve on the SORT was not a promotion, several Plaintiffs described being a member of SORT as "an aspiration," and the parties do not dispute that Plaintiffs experienced increased opportunities for overtime as a result of being on the team. (Defs.' 56.1 ¶ 14; Pls.' 56.1 ¶¶ 8, 14.) Within the DOC, SORT was known as a "close team," with members who not only worked together, but also supported each other personally. (Pls.' 56.1 ¶ 10; Jones Dep. 41.) Richard Remus served as the Assistant Executive Director of the SORT until 2003. (Defs.' 56.1 ¶ 13.) According to Plaintiffs, SORT was generally known throughout the Sheriff's office as "Remus's Unit," even after he was no longer in charge of the team. (Pls.' 56.1 ¶ 125.)

III. Plaintiffs' Support for Remus's Campaign for Cook County Sheriff

In March 2006, Remus ran against Defendant Thomas Dart in the Democratic Primary for Cook County Sheriff. (Id. ¶ 4.) Despite the pressure they claim to have felt from their supervisors to support Defendant Dart, Plaintiffs actively supported Remus's campaign in a variety of ways by "attending fundraisers, getting signatures on petitions, putting up signs and posters, donating money, wearing buttons and stickers, volunteering to walk for Remus in the St. Patrick's Day parade, and campaigning on election day." (Am. Compl. ¶ 24-26; Pls.' Mem. in Opposition to Defs.' Mot. for Summ. J. (hereinafter, "Pls.' Mem.") at 12.) The parties dispute the extent of Defendants' knowledge about Plaintiffs' support for Remus; Plaintiffs claim Defendants all knew that Plaintiffs supported Remus, but Defendants' testimony is more equivocal. Defendant Kurtovich testified that he could not be sure whether all of the Plaintiffs supported Remus's candidacy, but he did know that some SORT members showed support for Remus by placing bumper stickers on their cars. (Kurtovich Dep. 128-29, 131). Defendant Andrews also testified that he knew a group of SORT members supported Remus for Sheriff, but Andrews could not identify which Plaintiffs were participating in the campaign because they did not directly discuss it with him. (Andrews Dep. 154-56.) Defendant Holmes worked on Defendant Dart's campaign, and as a result, he reviewed the signatures on certain petitions supporting Remus. (Holmes Dep. 62.) Whatever the extent of their knowledge, it is clear that Defendants Kurtovich and Holmes supported Defendant Dart's campaign financially. (Campaign Disclosure List, Ex. HH to Pls.' 56.1; Holmes Dep. 60.)

Several Plaintiffs acknowledged that they had no direct conversations with Defendants regarding their political activity, but they claim they believed Defendants must have known they supported Remus's campaign due to their reputation within the DOC as "Remus's guys." (Cedeno Dep. 42; Hays Dep. 33; Lewis Dep. 101; Davis Dep. 15; Feddor Dep. 34; Diaz Dep. 43.) Plaintiff Burruss, for example, believes that Defendants knew of his support for Remus because Burruss was photographed at Remus fundraisers and his name appeared on petitions for Remus. (Burruss Dep. 44.) Plaintiff Canada concludes that Defendants were aware of his political activity because he was warned by one of his supervisors that department policy prohibited him from soliciting other officers for their signatures on campaign petitions outside of the training academy. (Canada Dep. 46.) Plaintiff Castellano claims he had several conversations with Defendants Kurtovich and Andrews regarding his support of the Remus campaign, though he could not recall the specific dates on which they spoke. (Castellano Dep. 25, 27-28.) Plaintiff Norris stated that he never had any conversations with Defendant Kurtovich regarding his support for Remus, but that he gave Defendants Andrews and Holmes updates on how the campaign was progressing on occasions when they all shared a command post. (Norris Dep. 16.) Similarly, Plaintiff O'Connell testified that he discussed his support for Remus's campaign in the DOC's weight room with Defendants Andrews and Holmes. (O'Connell Dep. 17-20.)

Plaintiffs further claim that during the election season, certain responsibilities that SORT members had previously held were taken away, and it was rumored that SORT would be disbanded. (Pls.' Mem. at 3; Burruss Dep. 26, 36.) For instance, Plaintiff Burruss claims that he and other SORT members were "discredited" by being forced to undergo extra security pat downs and show identification while escorting inmates around the compound. (Burruss Dep. 52.) Plaintiff Burruss confronted Defendant Holmes about SORT's rumored dissolution and Holmes stated that he would "look into it," but never provided any direct explanation as to why certain duties were removed from SORT's command. (Burruss Dep. 41.) Plaintiff Cedeno described SORT as being under "constant scrutiny by the administration," and Plaintiff Jones noted that the Sheriff's Police took over SORT's duties for the arrest team unit around the same time that Remus announced his candidacy. (Cedeno Dep. 48; Jones Dep. 17.) Plaintiff Vhalos, who also supported Remus, stated that he "tried to keep it quiet because [he] feared retaliation from the Sheriff's Office." (Vhalos Decl. ¶ 3, Ex. RR. to Pls.' 56.1.)

IV. Discontinuation of SORT

In May 2006, Plaintiff Feddor, the union representative for the SORT at that time, received a letter from the Sheriff's Office stating that SORT would soon be disbanded.*fn3 (Feddor Dep. 12, 43-44.) On June 9, 2006, Defendant Kurtovich sent a letter to the union attorney, T. Steven Calcaterra, stating that SORT was going to be replaced with a new response team called the Emergency Response Team ("ERT"). (Letter from Kurtovich to Calcaterra of 6/9/06, Ex. 15 to Defs.' 56.1.) The letter explained how the SORT's duties would change and described the selection process for the ERT. Feddor brought the letter he received to the attention of the union, and Plaintiffs held a meeting with union attorneys to discuss the situation. (Feddor Dep. 45; Jones Dep. 29.) During the meeting, when Plaintiff Burruss asked why a new unit was needed in light of the fact that the SORT team was already trained, union attorneys responded that SORT team members ...


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