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Michelle Garner v. the City of Country Club Hills

July 23, 2012

MICHELLE GARNER, PLAINTIFF,
v.
THE CITY OF COUNTRY CLUB HILLS, ILLINOIS, STEVEN BURRIS, ALDERMAN OF THE CITY OF COUNTRY CLUB HILLS, SUED IN HIS INDIVIDUAL CAPACITY, JOHN EDWARDS, ALDERMAN OF THE CITY OF COUNTRY CLUB HILLS, SUED IN HIS INDIVIDUAL CAPACITY, VINCENT LOCKETT, ALDERMAN OF THE CITY OF COUNTRY CLUB HILLS, SUED IN HIS INDIVIDUAL CAPACITY, FRANK MARTIN, ALDERMAN OF THE CITY OF COUNTRY CLUB HILLS, SUED IN HIS INDIVIDUAL CAPACITY, CYNTHIA SINGLETON, ALDERMAN OF THE CITY OF COUNTRY CLUB HILLS, SUED IN HER INDIVIDUAL CAPACITY, LEON WILLIAMS, ALDERMAN OF THE CITY OF COUNTRY CLUB HILLS, SUED IN HIS INDIVIDUAL CAPACITY, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Robert M. Dow, Jr.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff, Michelle Garner ("Garner"), filed a seven-count lawsuit, alleging that Defendant, the City of Country Club Hills ("City"), through the actions of the City Council, violated her constitutional rights when, for purposes of political retaliation, they fired her in response to her support for the mayor during the most recent election. Before the Court is Defendant's motion to dismiss Counts IV, V, VI, and VII [38] of Plaintiff's amended complaint [31].*fn1 For the reasons stated below, the Court denies Defendants' motion [38].

I. Background*fn2

Garner was an employee of the City from May 2008 through June 2011, working first in City Hall as a front counter clerk and later for the Superintendent of Parks and Recreation as a site coordinator. Garner was also a political supporter of Mayor Welch ("Mayor" or "Welch") and worked on his April 2011 re-election campaign by going door-to-door, attending meetings, handing out campaign literature, and working the election polls. Welch was re-elected in April, and two of his former mayoral opponents retained their position as Aldermen on the City Council. Individual Defendants Alderman Burris and Alderman Lockett allegedly knew of Garner's support of the Mayor and followed and harassed her in response to her involvement. On April 29, Welch sent a letter to all city employees notifying them that certain members of City Council were planning to eliminate several positions with the city for purposes of political retaliation. After the election, the City Council Finance Committee ("Finance Committee") held meetings during which they discussed the proposed terminations and named several of Welch's supporters by name. Subsequently, the City Council passed a budget plan that included the elimination of thirteen city employees, all of whom were political supporters of the Mayor. Garner was included in these employees and was subsequently terminated in July of 2011.

Plaintiff filed the instant suit against Defendant under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 ("Section 1983") alleging First Amendment Retaliation Claims for Freedom of Speech (Count IV), Assembly (Count V), and Freedom of Association (Count VI). Plaintiff alleges that the City terminated her position in retaliation for her support of the Mayor. In addition, Plaintiff brings a claim against the City under 745 ILCS 10/9-102 for payment of any final awards

(Count VII). Defendant has moved to dismiss claims IV, V, VI, and VII.

II. Legal Standard

A motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) tests the

sufficiency of the complaint, not the merits of the case.See Gibson v. City of Chicago, 910 F.2d 1510, 1520 (7th Cir. 1990). To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the complaint first must comply with Rule 8(a) by providing "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief" (Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2)), such that the defendant is given "fair notice of what the * * * claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957)). Second, the factual allegations in the complaint must be sufficient to raise the possibility of relief above the "speculative level," assuming that all of the allegations in the complaint are true. E.E.O.C. v. Concentra Health Servs., Inc., 496 F.3d 773, 776 (7th Cir. 2007) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). "[O]nce a claim has been stated adequately, it may be supported by showing any set of facts consistent with the allegations in the complaint." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 563. The Court accepts as true all of the well-pleaded facts alleged by the plaintiff and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn therefrom. See Barnes v. Briley, 420 F.3d 673, 677 (7th Cir. 2005).

III. Analysis

Section 1983 provides that any person who, under the color of law, causes the deprivation of "any rights, privileges or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured. . . ." 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (2006). To succeed on a § 1983 claim, Plaintiff must allege: (1) that she was deprived of a constitutional right, (2) as a result of an official municipal policy or custom, (3) which was the proximate cause of her injury. Monell v. New York City Dept. of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658, 690-91 (1978). Plaintiff's alleges that her First Amendment constitutional rights-Freedom of Association, Assembly, and Freedom of Speech-were violated as a result of the City's final decision makers' decision to terminate her position.*fn3

A.First Amendment Retaliation Claims -- Counts IV, V, and VI

In Counts IV, V, and VI, Plaintiff argues that she was retaliated against for political beliefs in violation of the First Amendment. *fn4 To plead a retaliation claim, a plaintiff must allege that (1) she engaged in constitutionally protected speech and (2) the defendant's retaliation was caused by the speech. Bd. of County Com'rs, Wabaunsee County, Kan. v. Umbehr, 518 U.S. 668, 675 (1996); see also Gardunio v. Town of Cicero, 674 F. Supp. 2d 976, 989 (N.D. Ill. 2009) (citing Roger Whitmore's Auto. Services, Inc. v. Lake County, Illinois, 424 F.3d 659, 668 (7th Cir. 2005). If the employee is able to prove that his or her participation in a protected activity was a substantial or motivating factor in the terminal decision, the government still may avoid liability by showing that it had legitimate, non-political reasons for firing the employee. Umbehr, 518 U.S. at 675.

The Seventh Circuit has concluded that both endorsement of a candidate for office, Bart v. Telford, 677 F.2d 622, 625 (7th Cir. 1982), and political campaigning and involvement, Brown v. U.S. Civil Service Commission, 553 F.2d 531, 534 (7th Cir. 1977) (quoting Elrod, 427 U.S. at 370--71), are politically protected expressions of speech under the First Amendment. Garner's activities-going door-to-door, attending campaign meetings, handing out campaign literature, and working the election polls-fall within the ambit of protected ...


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