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Corey Novick v. Robin Staggers

June 19, 2012

COREY NOVICK, PLAINTIFF,
v.
ROBIN STAGGERS, VICTOR ROBERSON, DEPARTMENT OF CHILDREN AND FAMILY SERVICES, AND OFFICE OF THE GOVERNOR, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Harry D. Leinenweber

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Before the Court are the Motions for Summary Judgment by Defendants Robin Staggers ("Staggers") and Victor Roberson ("Roberson"). For the reasons stated herein, both Motions are granted in their entirety.

I. BACKGROUND

Attorney Corey Novick ("Novick") met Defendants Staggers and Roberson when all three worked on the first gubernatorial campaign of Rod Blagojevich. Roberson was the Deputy Campaign Manager, having been a part of the campaign since its inception in 2000. Novick was the Director of Field Operations in suburban Cook County. After Blagojevich won the election in 2002, the three volunteered to serve on Blagojevich's transition team. Novick interviewed candidates referred for state jobs and made sure to let Roberson and Staggers know he, too, was interested in a job. All three found state jobs after Blagojevich was sworn in.

Roberson worked in the Governor's Office as a "liaison," which he describes as someone who reviewed resumes and forwarded the suitable ones on to state agencies for their review. Novick describes Roberson's job as finding state government jobs for the politically connected. Staggers was hired at the Department of Children and Family Services ("DCFS") as the Deputy Director of the Office of Employee Services. Novick, after being interviewed by Staggers and DCFS Director Bryan Samuels ("Samuels"), was hired and started a four-year term contract as the Office of Employee Services legal advisor on July 1, 2003, reporting to Staggers. Novick says he mostly did union labor relations work. Staggers, at least for a time, "oversaw the hiring process" at DCFS. Def. Staggers Br., Ex. Z, at 22. DCFS Director Samuels, who was ostensibly Staggers' boss, testified he viewed him as not being very effective at his job and as someone who created a hostile work environment for his employees. Nonetheless, he felt powerless to discharge Staggers and felt that Novick was protected by the Governor's Office.

Around that time, DCFS began receiving federal subpoenas seeking personnel records as part of an investigation of possible violations of Rutan v. Republican Party of Illinois and the Veteran's Preference Act. Rutan is, of course, the historic 1990 U.S. Supreme Court decision mandating that only certain public positions may be based on political affiliation and loyalty. Rutan v. Republican Party of Ill., 497 U.S. 62 (1990). The Veteran's Preference Act is a state law that gives hiring preference in public jobs to military veterans. 330 ILL. COMP. STAT. 55/0.01 et seq. News of the subpoenas hit the media, and Staggers, Novick and DCFS' Chief of Labor Relations Tom Putting ("Putting") were placed on paid administrative leave on October 25, 2005 by Samuels. They were reinstated on November 15, 2005 by order of the Governor's Office.

While Novick was on his paid leave, FBI agents visited him at his home and asked him questions about state hiring practices, including questions he says focused on Staggers and Roberson. Novick talked to investigators twice more after his reinstatement. He concedes he was questioned about his own involvement in hiring decisions and, in at least some of the interviews, his own resume padding.

After the leave, Staggers, Novick and Putting were all reassigned to new job titles within DCFS. Staggers contends after this point she had no say in personnel issues, but Novick contends she continued to be the personnel decision maker. Novick also contends Roberson, in the Governor's Office, had to sign off on all high-level DCFS employment decisions. Roberson disputes this, contending that John Harris, Blagojevich's Chief of Staff, had final say, but it seems clear that Roberson was at least in a position to influence Harris' decisions.

Novick's term expired at the end of June 2007. On June 20, 2007, DCFS was notified that the Governor's Office it was not renewing Novick's term, or the four-year terms of three other DCFS attorneys: Debra Dyer ("Dyer"), Sheila Riley ("Riley") and John Botner ("Botner"). Putting, who was not an attorney, had had his term renewed in 2006. It is uncontested that Botner was let go because of performance issues, but the two sides dispute why the others' terms were not renewed. Both sides agree Novick's employee performance reviews were good.

Staggers and Roberson contend Harris had put a stop to all term renewals. Novick disputes this, pointing to Putting's earlier term renewal. In any case, the sides agree that after the terms were not renewed, DCFS Deputy Director of the Office of Employee Services Michelle Smith ("Smith") and Classifications Manager Doug Mathis("Mathis") tried to re-write the job descriptions of Riley, Novick and Dyer to keep them employed at DCFS in "double exempt" or "at will" positions, a lengthy process.

Riley was moved to a vacant exempt position until a "double exempt" position for her was approved. Dyer, who directed all of the court services for juveniles at Cook County Juvenile Court, was let go on June 30, 2007 until her "double exempt" position was ready and she returned in October 2007.

Central Management Services ("CMS"), a state department that had to sign off on the creation of "double exempt" positions, refused to even forward to the Governor a request for such a position for Novick. Staggers and Roberson say it was because Novick's position did not have enough subordinates reporting to it; Novick contends this is unsupportable hearsay.

Both sides agree that DCFS tried other routes to keep him employed, such as having his position declared exempt by categorizing it as "wholly professional," but CMS shut this down too. (The parties do not explain what "wholly professional" means.) DCFS also investigated making Novick's position exempt due to being federally funded, but as that was not true, this avenue failed too.

Finally, DCFS created a lower-level, lower-paying position for which it intended to submit Novick's name. The new DCFS director, Erwin McEwen ("McEwen"), supported this and wanted to place Novick in the position. CMS approved the position, as did the Governor's Office. But in an informal conversation with either Roberson or the Governor's Deputy Director Louanner Peters (McEwen can't remember which), McEwen learned that Novick "didn't have any support up there" in the Governor's Office. Def. Staggers Ex. BB, 78-81. McEwen took this to mean that it would be futile to continue trying to rehire Novick, and Novick admits McEwen gave up such efforts in the fall of 2007. McEwen also testified he got a similar between-the-lines rejection of the rehire of another employee, Addie Hudson and, like Novick, he did not know why the Governor's Office did not want her rehired.

Novick admits he did not explicitly tell anyone at DCFS about his discussions with the FBI until December 2007, when Roberson asked him specifically if he had been approached, and Novick told him he had. But Novick says two conversations he had with DCFS General Counsel Liz Yore ("Yore") shortly after returning from his leave in 2005 would have made it clear to officials at DCFS that he had been approached by the FBI. The exact contours of the conversation are disputed, but both Yore and Novick agree he did not explicitly mention he had had discussions with the FBI. Both agree Yore advised him to retain counsel due to the investigation, but Novick further contends Yore refused to have DCFS provide one, saying the hiring improprieties investigation was unrelated to his job duties.

Novick filed suit against Staggers and Roberson under two causes of action: 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (for First Amendment retaliation) and for violation of the whistle blower provision of the Illinois State Officials and Employees Ethics Act. 5 ILL. STAT. COMP. 430/15-10. DCFS and the Governor's Office were originally Defendants but were voluntarily dismissed by Novick.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

Summary judgment is appropriate when the movant shows there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The Court construes all facts and makes all reasonable inferences in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Summary judgment is called for when the nonmoving party is unable to establish the existence of an essential element of its case, and on which it will bear the burden of proof at trial. Kidwell v. ...


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