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Tinleysparks, Inc. v. Village of Tinley Park

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

May 11, 2015

TINLEYSPARKS, INC., et al. Plaintiffs,
v.
VILLAGE OF TINLEY PARK, et al. Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

ELAINE E. BUCKLO, District Judge.

This case is about a political struggle in the Village of Tinley Park, Illinois ("Tinley Park" or "Village") between its longtime mayor and his allies, on the one hand, and two Village residents who ran for local office in April 2013 and lost.

The two losing candidates and their political organization have filed suit against the Village, the mayor, and seventeen of his supporters under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging that Defendants misappropriated public funds (Count I), suppressed political speech (Counts II through V), and tortuously interfered with their prospective economic advantages (Count VI).

Defendants have moved to dismiss the complaint for lack of standing and failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. The individual Defendants also argue that they are entitled to qualified immunity. I grant Defendants' motion only in part for the reasons stated below.

I.

At the motion to dismiss stage, I must accept Plaintiffs' factual allegations as true and draw all reasonable inferences in their favor. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009).

A.

TinleySparks, Inc. ("TinleySparks") is a non-profit corporation formed in 2010 to promote civic and political causes in Tinley Park. See Dkt. No. 80 ("Am. Compl.") at ¶ 7. Stephen E. Eberhardt ("Eberhardt"), a local attorney who ran for mayor in April 2013, is the President of TinleySparks. Id. at ¶ 8. Karen Weigand ("Weigand"), who ran for a seat on the Village's Board of Trustees in April 2013, is the Vice President of TinleySparks. Id. at ¶ 9.

Edward J. Zabrocki, Jr. ("Zabrocki") has been the Mayor of Tinley Park since 1981. He also leads a political organization that was known as "Team Tinley 2013" during the April 2013 election cycle. Id. at ¶ 11. The Village Clerk, Patrick Rea, and four of the six Village Trustees-David Seaman, Gregory Hannon, Brian Maher, and Terrance "T.J." Grady-ran as Team Tinley candidates in April 2013 and won reelection. Id. at ¶¶ 12-16. The other two Village Trustees-Thomas Stanton and Patricia Leoni-were appointed or selected to run for office by Zabrocki, but are not alleged to have been Team Tinley candidates in April 2013. Id. at ¶¶ 17-18.

Team Tinley's supporters include two political committees, "Citizens for Ed Zabrocki" and "Citizens to Elect Tinley Park Village Officials, " both of which receive contributions from businesses seeking Village contracts or other financial rewards. Id. at ¶¶ 11, 32. Until March 2013, Ronald and Judy Bruning ("the Brunings") served as the Chairperson and Secretary/Treasurer, respectively, of the two political committees supporting Team Tinley. Id. at ¶¶ 19-20. The Brunings own a floral business in Tinley Park, but also work for the Village. Id. at ¶ 20. Ronald Bruning is the Village's Zoning Administrator while Judy Bruning works as Zabrocki's personal assistant. Id. at ¶¶ 19-20. Martin Ward, who chairs the Village's economic development commission, replaced Ronald Bruning as Chairperson of "Citizens to Elect Tinley Park Village Officials" in March 2013. Id. at ¶¶ 26, 32(d).

B.

The complaint describes a series of incidents before and after the April 2013 election in which Zabrocki and his political allies allegedly used taxpayer funds to promote Team Tinley candidates (Count I) and suppressed political speech at various public events (Counts II and III) and in online forums (Counts IV and V).

1.

In Count I, Eberhardt and Weigand allege that the Village, Zabrocki, the Village Clerk, the six Village Trustees, and Judy Bruning misappropriated public funds in violation of the Due Process Clause by (1) using taxpayer money to conduct a political rally for Trustee Gregory Hannon in January 2012 when he announced his candidacy for the Illinois Senate in the Tinley Park Village Hall; (2) using their official, taxpayer-funded portraits in Team Tinley campaign materials before the April 2013 election; (3) using taxpayer money to commission a Village report, which "Citizens to Elect Tinley Park Village Officials" later used to attack Eberhardt and Weigand, on the cost of complying with Plaintiffs' requests under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act; and (4) allowing Judy Bruning to engage in political activities on Village work time. Id. at ¶¶ 35-52.

2.

Count II lumps together six incidents leading up to the April 2013 election in which Zabrocki and his allies allegedly suppressed opposing political speech: (1) from June 2012 through August 2012, Ellen Clark ("Ms. Clark"), the appointed Chairperson of various public events in downtown Tinley Park, prohibited unnamed "volunteers" from circulating a petition at the Tinley Park Farmers' Market to have a term limits referendum question placed on the ballot for the November 2012 general election despite the fact that Ms. Clark had personally circulated nominating petitions for Zabrocki and other Team Tinley candidates at the same event, id. at ¶¶ 24, 55-58; (2) on October 28, 2012, Ms. Clark directed Plaintiffs' volunteers to stop circulating nominating petitions for Eberhardt and Weigand at the "Halloween Kiddie Boo-Bash, " id. at ¶¶ 59-62; (3) starting in October 2012, Marge Weiner, the appointed head of the Senior Services Commission who runs the Tinley Park Senior Center in a publicly owned building, prohibited Eberhardt and Weigand from engaging in political activities at Senior Center events even though she had personally circulated a nominating petition on Zabrocki's behalf at the Senior Center and allowed Zabrocki and Village Trustee Patricia Leonia to campaign at Senior Center events and, id. at ¶¶ 27, 63-73; (4) in early 2013, Thomas "Doc" Mahoney, who served as President of the Tinley Park Chamber of Commerce, denied Plaintiffs' requests to host a "Candidates' Forum, " but later agreed to host such a forum before the March 2014 primary elections in which Eberhardt and Weigand were not candidates, id. at ¶¶ 28, 74-78; (5) in March 2013, after the Village removed a Team Tinley sign from a public park in response to Eberhardt's complaint, Ronald Bruning, the Village's Zoning Administrator, instructed private citizens to remove Plaintiffs' campaign signs from their private property, id. at ¶¶ 79-83; and (6) in April 2013, three days before the election, Village Trustee Brian Maher threatened Norman Elftmann, a local restaurant owner, for displaying a sign supporting Eberhardt in his front yard, id. at ¶¶ 84-85.

3.

Count III focuses on Plaintiffs' efforts to engage in political speech at the "Discover Tinley Community Awareness Expo" ("Expo") held on March 23, 2013. The Village hosts the annual Expo at the Tinley Park Convention Center. Id. at ¶ 88. In January 2013, Eberhardt received a solicitation to participate in the upcoming Expo, whose stated goal was to "provide an opportunity for businesses and organizations to showcase the services available to our community." Id. at ¶ 89. The Expo reservation form expressly stated, however, that "no political groups or campaigning will be permitted at this event." Id. On February 8, 2013, the Village rejected Plaintiffs' request for booth space at the Expo on the ground that "the prohibition on political activity at this event will be enforced against all participants, including incumbents running for office." Id. at ¶ 92.

Meanwhile, the Village was allowed to have a highly visible booth at the 2013 Expo near the main entrance with a larger banner referring to Zabrocki and four other Team Tinley candidates. Id. at ¶ 93. These candidates posed for a photograph in front of the Village booth, which Team Tinley then posted on its Facebook page along with the message: "Meet and Greet Team Tinley today at the Discover Tinley Community Expo." Id. at ¶ 96, Ex. J. Plaintiffs claim that denying them booth space at the 2013 Expo while simultaneously allowing Zabrocki and his allies to campaign at the event violated their constitutional rights.

4.

In Count IV, Plaintiffs allege that Zabrocki, the Village Clerk, the Village Trustees, and two other Village employees unlawfully suppressed their speech on a Village-sponsored website. The Village has established a Main Street Commission ("MSC") to promote small business growth in an area designated as "Downtown Tinley." Id. at ¶ 108. Donna Framke ("Framke") is the Village's Marketing Director and serves as the Staff Liaison to the MSC. Id. at ¶ 21. Zabrocki appointed Michael Clark and Richard Butkas, both of whom are Team Tinley supporters, to the MSC. Id. at ¶¶ 23, 25.

In April 2011, the Village contracted with a marketing company run by Cathy Maloney ("Maloney") to assist the MSC. Id. at ¶ 110. Maloney subsequently developed a website and a Facebook page for Downtown Tinley. Id. at ¶ 111. In October 2012, Maloney told Eberhardt that his law firm could no longer post on the Downtown Tinley Facebook page because such posts were considered political messages in light of Eberhardt's campaign for mayor. Id. at ¶ 113. Maloney then deleted prior posts by Eberhardt's law firm and refused to recognize TinleySparks as a contributor on the Downtown Tinley website. Id. at ¶¶ 114-15.

About one month later, in November 2012, the MSC announced a new "website sponsorship structure" that would allow participating businesses to reach a broader audience via an expanded website, an electronic newsletter, and e-mail features. Id. at ¶ 117. Plaintiffs allege that Zabrocki and his allies delayed implementation of the MSC's new sponsorship program until after the April 2013 elections to prevent Plaintiffs from communicating their views to a larger audience. Id. at ¶ 118. The MSC finally launched the new sponsorship program in August 2013. Id. Eberhardt informed Donna Framke, the Village's Marketing Director, that TinleySparks wanted to participate in the program and paid the required fee. Id. at ¶¶ 121-22. In October 2013, Framke told Eberhardt that the MSC was not moving forward with the sponsorship program due to lack of participation and returned TinleySparks's participation fee. Id. at ¶ 123.

The final incident described in Count IV is Mahoney's failure to attribute donations to TinleySparks (as opposed to Eberhardt's law firm) in two Downtown Tinley newsletters sent in January 2014. Id. at ¶¶ 126-29. Maloney failed to correct the error when Eberhardt brought it to her attention even though she promptly corrected a similar error regarding MSC Chairman Michael Clark's business. Id. at ¶¶ 130-32.

5.

Count V alleges that Plaintiffs were subjected to "censorship" and "disparate treatment" on the Downtown Tinley Facebook page. In September 2013, the MSC established a policy that removed service businesses such as Eberhardt's law firm and TinleySparks from the list of users who could post directly to the Downtown Tinley Facebook page and established a "Social Media Subcommittee" to review proposed posts. Id. at ¶¶ 141-45. After this policy was adopted, the Social Media Subcommittee refused to share TinleySparks's posts relating to term limits and a small business event in November 2013 and a series of posts relating to public safety in January 2014. Id. at ¶¶ 156-64.

6.

Count VI alleges that Richard Butkus, Ellen and Michael Clark, and Cathy Maloney tortuously interfered with Eberhardt's and TinleySparks's "reasonable expectancy that their reputation and visibility would be enhanced, ...


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