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Degroot v. Village of Matteson

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

July 9, 2014

KURT DEGROOT, Plaintiff,
v.
VILLAGE OF MATTESON, an Illinois Municipality, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

AMY J. ST. EVE, District Judge.

On November 21, 2012, Plaintiff Kurt DeGroot received a "conditional offer of employment" as a firefighter from the Village of Matteson (the "Village"). ( See R. 1, Compl. ¶ 11.) Before Plaintiff could fulfill the conditions precedent, the Village halted all hiring of new firefighters and rescinded Plaintiff's conditional offer of employment. ( Id. ¶¶ 14-15.) Plaintiff subsequently filed suit against the Village stemming from its refusal to hire him. Before the Court is the Village's motion to dismiss Plaintiff's claims pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). ( See R. 9.) For the following reasons, the Court grants the Village's motion in part and denies it in part.

BACKGROUND[1]

In 2010, the Village commissioned the Board of Fire and Police Commissioners ("Fire and Police Commission") to conduct testing for candidates seeking original appointments as Village firefighters. (Compl. ¶ 6.) The Fire and Police Commission subsequently offered written and oral examinations to the firefighter candidates. ( Id. ¶ 8.) Plaintiff passed both examinations, and in December 2010, the Fire and Police Commission placed him on a "Final Eligibility List, " which remained valid for two years. ( Id. ¶ 9.)

On November 21, 2012, Plaintiff received and accepted a "conditional offer of employment" from the Village. ( Id. ¶¶ 11, 24.) As conditions precedent to his employment, Plaintiff needed to pass a psychological examination and a physical examination. ( Id. 11.) Plaintiff passed the psychological examination. ( Id. ¶ 12.) Before he took the physical examination, however, the Village ordered the Fire and Police Commission to discontinue hiring of new firefighters, and it withdrew Plaintiff's conditional offer of employment. ( Id. ¶¶ 12, 15-16.) According to Plaintiff, the Village halted the hiring of new firefighters to retaliate against the Matteson Firefighters' Pension Fund Board of Trustees ("Pension Board"), which had threatened to sue the Village for failing to fund its pension obligations. ( Id. ¶¶ 13-14.)

Shortly after the Village withdrew Plaintiff's conditional offer of employment, the Final Eligibility List from which the Fire and Police Commission appoints new firefighters expired. ( Id. ¶ 17.) The Village posted a new Final Eligibility List in January 2013. In March 2013, after resolving its conflict with the Pension Board, the Village voted to hire three firefighters from the new Final Eligibility List. ( Id. ¶ 20.) Plaintiff turned 35 years old on September 12, 2013. ( Id. ¶ 19.) Because he had not received an appointment before this date, the Fire and Police Commission regulations bar him from becoming a full-time firefighter in Illinois. ( Id. ¶¶ 18-19; see also 65 ILCS 5/10-2.1-6.3(c).)

On November 26, 2013, Plaintiff filed suit against the Village. Plaintiff alleges that he "was denied employment with the Village because... he was associated with the fire department at a time [when] the department and its Pension Board were at odds with the Village." (Compl. ¶ 22.) Plaintiff asserts the following five counts: (1) violation of procedural due process under 42 U.S.C. § 1983; (2) violation of the First Amendment under 42 U.S.C. § 1983; (3) breach of contract; (4) promissory estoppel; and (5) a claim against the Village pursuant to Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658, 98 S.Ct. 2018, 56 L.Ed.2d 611 (1978).

LEGAL STANDARD

"A motion under Rule 12(b)(6) tests whether the complaint states a claim on which relief may be granted." Richards v. Mitcheff, 696 F.3d 635, 637 (7th Cir. 2012). Under Rule 8(a)(2), a complaint must include "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). The short and plain statement must "give the defendant fair notice of what the claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007) (citation omitted). Under federal notice pleading standards, a plaintiff's "factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929. Put differently, a "complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929). "In reviewing the sufficiency of a complaint under the plausibility standard, [courts] accept the well-pleaded facts in the complaint as true." Alam v. Miller Brewing Co., 709 F.3d 662, 665-66 (7th Cir. 2013).

ANALYSIS

I. Count I: Violation of Procedural Due Process Under 42 U.S.C. § 1983

In Count I, Plaintiff asserts a claim for violation of his Fourteenth Amendment right to procedural due process. To plead a procedural due process claim, a plaintiff must allege (1) a constitutionally protected liberty or property interest, (2) a deprivation of that liberty or interest, and (3) a denial of due process. See Citizens Health Corp. v. Sebelius, 725 F.3d 687, 694 (7th Cir. 2013); Palka v. Shelton, 623 F.3d 447, 452 (7th Cir. 2010). The Village argues that Plaintiff's due process claim fails as a matter of law because Plaintiff did not have a constitutionally protected property interest in employment with the Village.

Constitutionally protected property interests do not derive from the Constitution itself. "[R]ather, they are created and their dimensions are defined by existing rules or understandings that stem from an independent source such as state law-rules or understandings that secure certain benefits and that support claims of entitlement to those benefits." Board of Regents of State Colleges v. Roth, 408 U.S. 564, 577, 92 S.Ct. 2701, 33 L.Ed.2d 548 (1972). To have a property interest protected by the Fourteenth Amendment, the plaintiff must have "more than a unilateral expectation of [the claimed interest]. He must, instead, have a legitimate claim of entitlement to it." See Santana v. Cook Cnty. Bd. of Rev., 679 F.3d 614, 621 (7th Cir. 2012) (alteration in original). In the employment context, a legitimate claim of entitlement-and thus, a protected property interest-arises in one of two ways: "(1) by an independent source such as state law securing certain benefits; or (2) by a clearly implied promise of continued employment." Phelan v. City of Chicago, 347 F.3d 679, 681 (7th Cir. 2003) (quoting Shlay v. Montgomery, 802 F.2d 918, 921 (7th Cir. 1986)). Plaintiff argues that his employment contract with the Village, in conjunction with provisions of the Illinois Municipal Code pertaining to the hiring and firing of firefighters, provided him with a protected property interest in employment with the Village. ( See R. 17, Pl. Resp. Br. at 5.) The Court disagrees.

To begin with, the Seventh Circuit has held, under similar circumstances, that a conditional offer of employment does not create a property interest in prospective employment. See Moore v. Muncie Police & Fire Merit Com'n, 312 F.3d 322, 326-27 (7th Cir. 2002); see also Petru v. City of Berwyn, 872 F.2d 1359, 1363 (7th Cir. 1989). In Moore, the plaintiff received and accepted a conditional offer of employment from the Muncie, Indiana Fire Department. See 312 F.3d at 323. The Muncie Police and Fire Merit Commission then forwarded the plaintiff's application to the Muncie Firefighter's Pension Board for review and certification that he met the pension fund's membership requirements. Id. Eligibility for membership in the pension fund was a condition precedent for employment with the fire department under Indiana law. Id. (citing Ind. Code § 36-8-3-21(b)). Upon review, the Firefighter's Pension Board determined that the plaintiff was too old to become a member of the Pension Fund, and as a result, the Police and Fire Merit ...


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