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Shakman v. Democratic Organization of Cook County

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

June 2, 2014

MICHAEL L. SHAKMAN, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
DEMOCRATIC ORGANIZATION OF COOK COUNTY, et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

SIDNEY I. SCHENKIER, Magistrate Judge.

Intervenor John R. Jackson seeks to vacate an arbitration award (the "Award") denying his political discrimination claim against the Forest Preserve District of Cook County (the "District") pursuant to the Illinois Uniform Arbitration Act, 710 ILCS ยง 5/1 et seq. Mr. Jackson filed a timely "Motion to Vacate Arbitration Award" (doc. # 3549) and a "Memorandum in Support of Motion to Vacate Arbitration Award" ("Jack. Mem.") (doc. # 3550), arguing that the Award should be vacated because the Arbitrator exceeded his authority and made gross errors of law and fact that are apparent on the face of the Award. For its part, the District asks this Court to deny Mr. Jackson's motion and to confirm the Award (doc. # 3606). The motion has been fully briefed. After careful review of the parties' submissions, we deny Mr. Jackson's motion and confirm the Award.

I.

We begin with a brief overview of the Shakman Decree and then provide a summary of both Mr. Jackson's Shakman claim and the Award.

A.

Under the Shakman Decree, the City of Chicago[1] is barred (except for certain positions not at issue here) from "conditioning, basing or knowingly prejudicing or affecting any term or aspect of governmental employment, with respect to one who is at the time already a governmental employee, upon or because of any political reason or factor." Shakman v. Democratic Org. of Cook County, 481 F.Supp. 1315, 1323, 1358 (N.D. Ill. 1979), vacated sub nom., Shakman v. Dunne, 829 F.2d 1387 (7th Cir. 1987), cert. denied, 484 U.S. 1065 (1988). To sustain a Shakman claim, a plaintiff must show, by clear and convincing evidence, that employment decision-makers were aware of the affected employees' political affiliations (or lack thereof) and made their employment decisions based on those political considerations. Shanahan v. City of Chicago, 82 F.3d 776, 781 (7th Cir. 1996); Everett v. Cook County, 704 F.Supp.2d 794, 804 (N.D. Ill. 2010) (citing Shakman v. Democratic Org. of Cook County, No. 69-2145, 2009 WL 855633, at *2 (N.D. Ill. Mar. 30, 2009)); see also Maxwell v. County of Cook, No. 10 CV 00320, 2011 WL 4639530, at *6 n.6 (N.D. Ill. Mar 17, 2011) (Schenkier, J.). Once a plaintiff makes this showing, the burden shifts to the defendant to show that it would have made the same employment decision notwithstanding the political reason or factor. Shanahan, 82 F.3d at 780.

As part of the Shakman proceedings, on March 5, 2009, the district court approved a Supplemental Relief Order. See Supplemental Relief Order for the Forest Preserve District of Cook County ("SRO"), in Michael Shakman et al. v. Democratic Org. of Cook County et al., Case No. 69 C 2145 (doc. # 1049). In addition to describing the political patronage activities that are prohibited, the SRO provides review and enforcement procedures for alleged violations occurring after the entry of the SRO ( see Id., Section V). These procedures allow complainants the option of filing a complaint with the Shakman Special Complaint Administrator, electing to go to arbitration, or filing a complaint in federal court ( Id. ). An individual who elects to go to arbitration under the SRO is barred from filing a complaint in federal court ( Id. ). In this case, after failing to receive a promotion, Mr. Jackson filed a complaint with the office of the Cook County Shakman Complaint Administrator, Mark Vogel, on August 4, 2010 (Dist. Mem. at 1). Mr. Vogel sustained Mr. Jackson's complaint, whereupon Mr. Jackson elected to proceed with binding arbitration ( Id. at 2).

B.

Mr. Jackson began working for the District in 1994 as a woodsman within the Resource Management Department (Jack. Mem., Exh. 2 at 48). By 2010, Mr. Jackson had risen up to the position of Resource Technician ( Id. ). The Resource Management Department is responsible for forestry-related tasks, including fire suppression, prescribed burns, mowing, and tending to the trees and various plants within the District's parks ( Id. at 56, 101). Meanwhile, the District's Maintenance Department is responsible for maintaining the appearance of the parks, including garbage removal, sign and fence repair, portal cleaning, picnic table upkeep, mowing, and snowplowing (Jack. Mem., Exh. 3 at 2).

In June 2010, the District posted a Notice of Job Opportunity ("Posting") announcing the opening of an Assistant Maintenance Divisional Superintendent ("AMDS") position within the Maintenance Department (Jack. Mem., Exh. 10). The Posting contained a "Job Summary" paragraph; a "Knowledge, Skills, Abilities and Other Characteristics" paragraph; and a "Minimum Qualifications" paragraph that called for three minimum qualifications: (1) a high school diploma or G.E.D. certificate; (2) four years of professional experience working in a Maintenance Operations Division; and (3) a valid commercial driver's license ( Id. ).

Mr. Jackson decided to apply for this position, and he accordingly submitted an Employment Application Form on May 7, 2010 (Jack. Mem., Exh. 8). On July 9, 2010, Mr. Jackson was called for an interview before a three-person panel composed of Darrell Howell, Kathleen Weger, and Jose Virella, all of whom are or were District Regional Superintendents (Dist. Mem. at 3). Also present during the interview was Carmen Sanchez, a Shakman compliance officer (Jack. Mem., Exh. 2 at 72-73). The panel asked Mr. Jackson approximately eight questions regarding his application and delved into his supervisory experience and machinery expertise ( Id. at 73-74). Ultimately, two of the 14 interviewees were awarded the AMDS jobs, but Mr. Jackman was not one of them-he was ranked third of all the interviewees and lost out on the position to a Maintenance Department employee named Colleen Sinodinos and to another employee named Joseph LaFata.[2]

On July 27, 2010, Mr. Jackson filed a complaint with the Shakman Complaint Administrator, Mark Vogel, alleging that he "as well as others were passed up do [sic] to favoritism and possible politics" (Dist. Mem., Exh. 2). Mr. Jackson contended that Ms. Sinodinos was unqualified for the promotion because she had much less time on the job and far less experience operating various work-related machines ( Id. ). Mr. Jackson further asserted that Ms. Sinodinos had a close working relationship with two out of the three people on the interview panel-Kathy Weger, who was Ms. Sinodinos's supervisor prior to her promotion; and Darrell Howell, who was Ms. Sinodinos's husband's supervisor-and that they "most likely coached [her] with the questions and answers" ( Id. ). Moreover, Mr. Jackson stated that "from what [he] understand[s], " Ms. Sinodinos belongs to the 19th Ward of Cook County ( Id. ).

Mr. Vogel conducted an investigation that involved a review of the June 9, 2010 interview material, including the application forms and individual scoring sheets, as well as interviews (with the help of his staff) of all involved persons: Mr. Jackson, Colleen Sinodinos, Joseph LaFata, Kathy Weger, Darrell Howell, Jose Virella, Michael Martin (a former District Superintendent and, at the relevant time, Kathy Weger's supervisor), and four unnamed coworkers (Jack. Mem., Exh. 3). Mr. Vogel completed a Final Investigation Report (the "Vogel Report") in which he concluded that Ms. Sinodinos's advancement had been the product of improper political influences ( Id. at 1-18). Specifically, Mr. Vogel found that "[m]any of the individuals that discussed Sinodinos' application pre-interview, as well as other interview panel members, were aligned with Sinodinos' political affiliations" ( Id. at 16). He concluded that Mr. Martin had talked with Kathy Weger about Ms. Sinodinos prior to her interview, and that Michael Martin "was Colleen Sinodinos' most influential clout, due to their shared political organization-Cook County's 19th Ward" ( Id. at 2 n.1, 6). He further concluded that Ms. Sinodinos was less qualified for the AMDS position than Mr. Jackson, a belief shared by the Shakman compliance monitor who attended the interview (Ms. Sanchez), and who reported that "Jackson interviewed better than Sinodinos" ( Id. at 9).

As a result of Mr. Vogel's conclusions, memorialized in the Vogel Report, Mr. Jackson filed the paperwork necessary to commence an arbitration proceeding against the District, and a four-day hearing was held before Arbitrator James Cox between November 13, 2012 and March 27, 2013 (Jack. Mem., Exh. 1 at 1). Mr. Jackson was represented by counsel throughout the proceedings. In his post-hearing brief, Mr. Jackson maintained that high-level, politically-connected employees of the District, particularly Michael Martin, violated Shakman by discussing Ms. Sinodinos's candidacy prior to her interview and by "put[ting] politics into play" as Mr. Martin "was very outspoken about using political clout to obtain a promotion" within the District (Jack. Mem., Exh. 4 at 26-27). The District, in its closing arguments, maintained that Ms. Sinodinos's political activity was separate and apart from her work and that any evidence presented to the contrary derived from hearsay and conclusory statements regarding Michael Martin (Jack. Mem., Exh. 5 at 17-18). The District further asserted that Ms. Sinodinos's experience within the private sector and the Maintenance Department equipped her to be a contender for the position, whereas Mr. Jackson's work history was exclusively within the Resource Department-a department with different duties and qualifications from those sought ( Id. at 22-23).

On June 20, 2013, the Arbitrator issued a 32-page Award in which he concluded that "[t]he Sinodinos selection had been based on fair and valid selection criteria established by the District without regard to any political considerations, " and he accordingly denied Mr. Jackson's complaint (Jack. Mem., Exh. 1 at 32) (emphasis in original). The Arbitrator determined that Ms. Sinodinos "was not shown to be politically active in the 19th Ward beyond engaging in a walk for charity... and buying fund raising tickets in 2008" ( Id. at 4). Similarly, the Arbitrator did not find any evidence showing that Mr. Martin was involved with Ms. Sinodinos in any 19th Ward activities ( Id. ). While the evidence established that Mr. Martin had a conversation with Ms. Weger prior to the July 9 interviews in which he told Ms. Weger that Ms. Sinodinos was a "great" worker, the Arbitrator was unconvinced that Mr. Martin "would seek to exercise political influence in support of an employee who did not have any political relationship with him besides belonging to the 19th Ward" and whom the evidence established was not politically active ( Id. at 31).

The Arbitrator observed that while nepotism was a possible consideration at play during the interview process, the only question properly before him was whether Ms. Sinodinos's selection had been politically influenced by Mr. Martin-not whether some other form of favoritism was implicated ( Id. at 8).[3] In addition, while he found no evidence of a Shakman violation by Mr. Martin, the Arbitrator discussed evidence that he found showed that Mr. Jackson had engaged in a Shakman violation of his own shortly before his interview-an improper contact with a member of the interview panel (Ms. Weger) ( Id. at 12-20). The Arbitrator noted that this evidence of Mr. Jackson's improper conduct did not come to light ...


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