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Bless v. Cook County Sheriff's Office

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

February 27, 2015

ROBERT BLESS, Plaintiff,
v.
COOK COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE; TOM DART, in his individual capacity; DEWATNE HOLBROOK, in his individual capacity; JOSEPH WAYS, SR., in his individual capacity; ZELDA WHITTLER in her individual capacity; SHERYL COLLINS, in her individual capacity; EDWARD DYNER, in his individual capacity; ROSEMARIE NOLAN, in her individual capacity; and the COOK COUNTY SHERRIF'S MERIT BOARD; JAMES P. NALLY, Chairman; BYRON BRAZIER, Vice Chairman; ROBERT F. HOGAN, Secretary; KIM R. WIDUP, Board Member; BRIAN J. RIORDAN, Board Member; JOHN J. DALICANDRO, Board Member; LANCE C. TYSON, Board Member; JOHN R. ROSALES, Board Member; VINCENT T. WINTERS, Board Member, in their individual capacities; and COOK COUNTY, a unit of local government, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

JOHN Z. LEE, District Judge.

Plaintiff Robert Bless was terminated from his position as a police officer for the Cook County Sheriff's Office ("CCSO") on May 3, 2013. He subsequently sued the CCSO, seven individual CCSO employees ("Sheriff Defendants"), Sheriff Thomas Dart in his official capacity, Cook County, the Cook County Sheriff's Merit Board ("Merit Board"), and members of the Merit Board in their individual capacity ("Merit Board Defendants"). Bless alleges his termination was unlawful due to racial discrimination (Count I and Count II) and political retaliation on the basis of his affiliation with the Republican Party (Count III). He also seeks administrative review of the Merit Board's final decision pursuant to Illinois law (Count IV).

Defendants move to dismiss the Second Amended Complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure ("Rule") 12(b)(6). Bless opposes dismissal and also seeks leave to file a Third Amended Complaint. For the reasons provided herein, Counts I and III are dismissed without prejudice as to the government entities and individuals sued in their official capacities. Counts I and III are dismissed with prejudice as to the Merit Board members to the extent they are sued in their individual capacities. The Court grants the motion to dismiss Count II against all parties with prejudice. The Court denies the motion to dismiss Counts I and III with regard to the Sheriff Defendants in their individual capacity. Finally, the Court denies without prejudice Bless's motion to file a Third Amended Complaint.

I. Factual Background

Bless is a white male and a registered Republican. 2d Am. Compl ¶¶ 5, 38. Around 1996, Bless started working for the CCSO, and he became a sworn police officer for the CCSO in 1997. Id. ¶¶ 37-38. Bless is also an attorney licensed to practice law in Illinois, and he practiced while serving as a police officer. Id. ¶ 39. In 2008, he became Commissioner for McHenry County on the Republican ticket and served in that capacity until 2012. Id. ¶ 40. Bless asserts that he submitted secondary employment requests to the Sheriff's Office for both his law practice and as County Commissioner, and these requests were approved by the CCSO. Id. ¶¶ 41-42.

In September 2008, Bless was injured on duty and took "injury on duty" status. Id. ¶ 43. He filed a workers compensation claim as a result of this injury. See id. In April 2009, while Bless was on medical leave, Defendant Rosemarie Nolan initiated a complaint against him. Nolan requested an investigation, alleging that Bless was working for McHenry County without a secondary employment application on file. Id. ¶ 44. In May 2009, the Sheriff Defendants attempted to bring felony charges against Bless. Id. ¶ 45. When the felony charges were not approved by the State's Attorney, Sheriff Defendants initiated administrative charges against Bless, seeking his termination from the CCSO. Id. ¶ 46. Defendant Sheryl Collins investigated the allegations against Bless around July 20, 2011, and recommended that Bless be terminated from the CCSO. Id. ¶ 47.

That same day, Defendants Edward Dyner and Joseph Ways approved the investigation and affirmed Collins' recommendation. Id. 48. On or around July 22, 25, and 26 of that year, Defendants Dewayne Holbrook, Ways, and Zelda Whittler also approved and concurred with the recommendation for Bless's termination. Id. ¶ 49.

In October 2011, Defendant Dart filed charges before the Merit Board, seeking Bless's termination. Id. ¶ 50. Dart sought termination based on allegations that Bless did not have a secondary employment request on file at the CCSO and did not have the proper authority to work as McHenry County Commissioner. Id. ¶ 51. Dart further alleged that Bless did not have approval for secondary employment from 2009 through November 2010, that Bless had held unauthorized secondary employment while receiving temporary checks from the Cook County Insurance Benefit Fund, and that Case: 1:13-cv-04271 Document #: 122 Filed: 02/27/15 Page 4 of 20 PageID #:1606 Bless falsely reported to investigators from the Office of Professional Review that he had a secondary employment request on file. Id. ¶ 51.

On May 6, 2013, the Merit Board terminated Bless. Id. ¶ 52. The Merit Board found that Bless was not authorized to engage in secondary employment, that he had not been given approval from 2009 through November 2010 to engage in secondary employment, and that he had falsely reported to investigator of having a secondary employment request on file. Id. ¶ 54.

Bless asserts that he was treated differently from other similar-situated comparators. According to Bless, two non-white officers at the CCSO were given warnings for unauthorized secondary employment but were promoted rather than terminated. Id. ¶ 56. One additional officer at the CCSO was found guilty of engaging in secondary employment for over nine years, but he was suspended rather than terminated. Id. ¶ 58. According to Bless, this officer politically supports Sheriff Dart. See Id. ¶ 57-58.

Bless also asserts that the CCSO has a history of political retaliation. He alleges that, because of this practice, a federal court previously appointed monitors in Shakman v. Democratic Organization of Cook County, No. 69 C 1343 (N.D. Ill.), otherwise known as "the Shakman decree, " to oversee the CCSO's employment practices. Id. ¶ 63. Additionally, he asserts that in Burruss v. Cook Cnty. Sheriff's Office, No. 08 C 6621, 2013 WL 3754006 (N.D. Ill. July 15, 2013), a jury found the CCSO and one its top-ranking officials guilty of political retaliation against twenty-one plaintiffs in August 2012. Id. ¶¶ 64-65. Following this jury decision, the CCSO never disciplined the top-ranking official for his retaliatory acts. Id. ¶¶ 67. Despite this, according to Bless, none of the Defendants have initiated investigations into political retaliation and no top officers at CCSO have been disciplined, despite the fact the CCSO claims to have a "zero tolerance" policy against political retaliation. Id. ¶¶ 66-69.

II. Legal Standard

When evaluating a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), federal courts must accept as true all well-pleaded facts alleged in the complaint and construe all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party. Killingsworth v. HSBC Bank Nev., N.A., 507 F.3d 614, 618 (7th Cir. 2009) (citing Savory v. Lyons, 469 F.3d 667, 670 (7th Cir. 2006)). In order to state a valid claim, a plaintiffs complaint must contain a "short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). A plaintiff is not required to allege "detailed factual allegations, " but must plead facts that, when "accepted as true... state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)).

To determine whether a complaint meets the Twombly plausibility standard, the "reviewing court draw[s] on its judicial experience and common sense." Id. at 678. Where the factual allegations are well-pleaded, the Court assumes them to be true and determines whether those facts give rise to a plausible entitlement to relief. Id. at 679. A claim is facially plausible when its factual content allows the Court to draw a reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the actions alleged. Id. at 678. Plausibility however "does not imply that the district court should decide whose version to believe, or which version is more likely than not." Swanson v. Citibank, N.A., 614 F.3d 400, 404 (7th Cir. 2010).

III. Analysis

A. The Merit Board Defendants Are Entitled To Absolute Immunity

The Merit Board Defendants, sued in their individual capacity, argue that all claims against them should be dismissed pursuant to their quasi-judicial immunity from lawsuit. The Seventh Circuit applies a "functional approach" to determinations of quasi-judicial immunity. Wilson v. Kelkhoff, 86 F.3d 1438, 1443 (7th Cir. 1996). A court "look[s] to the nature of the function performed, not the identity of the actor who performed it." Id. "Absolute immunity protects members of quasi-judicial adjudicatory bodies when their duties are functionally equivalent to those of a judge or prosecutor." Heyde v. Pittenger, 633 F.3d 512, 517 (7th Cir. 2011) (concluding that members of an Illinois county's Board of Review, which hears complaints from taxpayers challenging their property assessments, are entitled to judicial immunity for their decisions resolving appeals) (citing Butz v. Economou, 438 U.S. 478, 512-13 (1978)); see also Killinger v. Johnson, 389 F.3d 765, 770 (7th Cir. 2004) (upholding grant of judicial immunity to mayor for actions as local liquor control commissioner in closing bar).

In Butz, the Supreme Court identified "several characteristics of quasi-judicial functions that courts should consider when determining whether a public official is entitled to absolute immunity: (1) the need to assure that the individual can perform his functions without harassment or intimidation; (2) the presence of safeguards that reduce the need for damages actions as a means for controlling unconstitutional conduct; (3) the insulation from political influence; (4) the importance of precedent; (5) the adversarial nature of the process; and (6) the correctability of error on appeal." Heyde, 633 F.3d at 517 (citing Butz, 438 U.S. at 512). The Court's task is to determine whether, absent the cloak of immunity, a government decisionmaker would be compelled to "act with an excess of caution or otherwise... skew their decisions in ways that result in less than full fidelity to the objective and independent criteria that ought to guide their conduct." Forrester v. White, 484 U.S. 219, 223 (1988).

Here, when assessed against the Butz factors, the Court concludes that the duties performed by the members of the Merit Board are sufficiently quasi-judicial in nature to warrant absolute immunity. First, employment disputes, like other disputes that Illinois has delegated to administrative boards, are "inherently controversial and likely to result in disappointed parties and, unless checked, a multitude of lawsuits." Heyde, 633 F.3d at 519. It is imperative ...


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