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Frakes v. Elba-Salem Fire Protection

United States District Court, C.D. Illinois, Peoria Division

August 3, 2016

STEVEN FRAKES, Plaintiff,
v.
ELBA-SALEM FIRE PROTECTION, DISTRICT, TRUSTEE GERALD BUCKMAN, in his official capacity, TRUSTEE EUGENE SAUNDERS, in his official capacity, and TRUSTEE GREGORY A. WESSEL, in his official capacity, Defendants.

          ORDER AND OPINION

          James E. Shadid Chief United States District Judge.

         This matter is now before the Court on Elba-Salem Fire Protection District’s Motion [25] for Summary Judgment pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. For the reasons stated herein, Elba-Salem Fire Protection District’s Motion [25] is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART.

         STATEMENT OF FACTS

         Plaintiff, Steven Frakes (“Frakes”), was employed by Defendant, Elba-Salem Fire Protection District (“Elba-Salem”), as a volunteer firefighter from approximately December 1, 1999, to July 29, 2014. Elba-Salem is a local governmental unit following the laws of the State of Illinois. Before becoming a volunteer firefighter for Elba-Salem, Frakes did unpaid volunteer work for Elba-Salem. Defendants, Gerald Buckman (“Buckman”), Eugene Saunders (“Saunders”), and Gregory A. Wessel (“Wessel”) are and were at all pertinent times, trustees of the District appointed by the Knox County Board. Wessel is also a volunteer firefighter, as well as, Secretary for the trustees.

         The trustees have the power to terminate volunteer firefighters, but there is neither a formal process, nor a set of rules, for firing a volunteer firefighter. Elba-Salem officers are elected annually by volunteers, have their own training and business meetings, and are under the management and supervision of the elected fire chief. Frakes admitted that is the procedure followed at Elba-Salem, but denied the trustees are allowed to delegate management and supervision responsibilities over firefighters to the fire chief. He claims that under the Fire Protection District Act, the trustees are responsible for those functions. 70 ILCS 705/0.01, et seq., 705/6. The volunteer firemen are paid between $2.00 and $5.00 per call. Elba-Salem also reimburses tuition and expenses for all firefighter training sessions. An annual banquet is held in January each year where the firefighters receive their reimbursement checks for the previous year.

         From 2002 through 2013, Frakes repeatedly stated that Elba-Salem was not following the requirements of the Fire Protection District Act. 70 ILCS 705/0.01 et seq., 705/6. Frakes claims the trustees were unlawfully delegating some of their responsibilities to the firefighters themselves, or to officers elected by the firefighters. In May 2013, Fire Chief Phil Goedeke (“Goedeke”) lost the election to John McKinty (“McKinty”). On May 31, 2013, and July 2, 2013, Goedeke and Frakes filed complaints with the Illinois Attorney General alleging violations of the Illinois Open Meetings Act. Since the 2013 complaint, Frakes admits the District has been more compliant with the Open Meetings Act.

         While a volunteer firefighter, Frakes observed other Elba-Salem firefighters discussing Elba-Salem business in local bars away from the firehouse and often complained to the firefighters about this practice. Frakes also regularly complained about Elba-Salem violating rules regarding the Elba-Salem cadet program. In the spring of 2013, Frakes was involved in a dispute with the wife of Assistant Chief McKinty over t-shirts for an annual fundraiser at My Place Bar & Grill, which is owned and operated by Mrs. McKinty. Frakes claims McKinty, who subsequently became Fire Chief, damaged his reputation over the t-shirt controversy. However, Elba-Salem claims the fundraiser did not even involve fire department business. Elba-Salem firefighters regularly participated in the fundraiser using Elba-Salem buildings and equipment, which Frakes argues constitutes fire department business.

         Prior to 2013, Frakes regularly complained about another firefighter, Ken Vallas (“Vallas”), coming to calls under the influence of alcohol. In August 2013, Frakes joined five other firefighters by signing a petition to remove Vallas for aggravation, intimidation, and insubordination. Based on the recommendation of Chief McKinty, the trustees suspended Vallas on October 3, 2013, for six months for insubordination. Vallas was asked by McKinty to attend the annual recognition dinner on January 25, 2014, which was during his suspension, to present an award to his daughter for Outstanding Cadet of the Year. At the annual dinner, volunteers were also presented with their reimbursement checks for the previous year. The dinner was customarily attended by volunteer firefighters, the auxiliary, parents of cadet’s, and some trustees. On February 3, 2014, Frakes and others signed a petition demanding Vallas be terminated for attending the dinner and violating his suspension. The trustees reprimanded McKinty for causing dissention within the Department by allowing Vallas to attend the dinner, but the District’s attorney found there was no impropriety or illegality for Vallas to attend the dinner while suspended. Complaints were made by multiple firefighters to the trustees for not supporting Vallas’ ability to attend the dinner and about Frakes’ disruptive behavior at meetings. On April 8, 2014, Vallas was reinstated as a fireman.

         In the summer of 2014, members of the Elmwood and Farmington Fire Districts complained to McKinty about problems with Frakes. In July 2014, officers from the Elmwood Fire Department complained to Elba-Salem officials about an alleged email Frakes sent disrespecting a retired fireman. The nature of Farmington’s complaints regarding problems with Frakes were not specified in the record. The majority of Elba-Salem’s volunteer firemen also complained to McKinty about Frakes, all of which the trustees were aware. At that point, Elmwood threatened to cease mutual aid support with Elba-Salem, meaning that Elmwood would no longer provide back-up to Elba-Salem when additional resources were needed. By July 16, 2014, Wessel was presented with a petition signed by ten firefighters in support of terminating Frakes in order “to promote better harmony.” Frakes was later notified of the petition through an email. Wessel also emailed Frakes regarding the complaints about him from other fire districts, and a date was set for a hearing on July 22, 2014.

         On July 22, 2014, Chief McKinty spoke in favor of terminating Frakes, and Frakes was given the opportunity to address the allegations against him. However, the trustees decided not to take action against Frakes at that time. One day later, July 23, 2014, First Captain Britt Ewalt sent an email to the trustees complaining about their lack of support for Chief McKinty and failure to terminate Frakes. At least four other firefighters, in addition to Chief McKinty, complained about Frakes not being terminated, and another hearing was held on July 29, 2014, to reconsider terminating Frakes. At that meeting, Chief McKinty named seven additional firemen who threatened to quit if Frakes was not fired. Frakes was not surprised by the petition and was aware that he caused disharmony and dissention throughout the department in 2014. At one of the special meetings in July 2014, Buckman said Frakes was “a pain in the ass” and a “troublemaker, ” who was always protesting and getting up at meetings. The trustees unanimously voted in favor of terminating Frakes on July 29, 2014. Trustee Buckman indicated that Frakes was terminated because he was regarded as a troublemaker and there was controversy over the many petitions and letters he wrote during his tenure with the fire department.

         Before the annual dinner in January 2015, Frakes’ attorney was mailed the amount Frakes was owed for training reimbursement and calls in 2014 prior to his termination. Defendant has moved for summary judgment, and this Order follows.

         DISCUSSION

         The Court will grant summary judgment if the movant shows there is no genuine dispute of any material facts and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The plaintiff cannot merely allege the existence of a factual dispute to defeat summary judgment. Basith v. Cook County, 241 F.3d 919, 926 (7th Cir. 2001). Instead, sufficient evidence must be presented to allow a jury to render a verdict in the plaintiff’s favor. Id. The non-moving party must present evidence sufficient to show the existence of each element of its case on which it will bear the burden at trial. Filipovic v. K&R Express Systems, Inc., 176 F.3d 390 (7th Cir. 1999). For a court to weigh the evidence on a summary judgment motion is improper. Kodish v. Oak Brook Terrace Fire Protection District, 604 F.3d 490, 505 (7th Cir. 2010). Furthermore, mere conclusory allegations do not constitute evidence. Montgomery v. American Airlines, Inc., 626 F.3d 382, 389 (7th Cir. 2010). However, uncorroborated, self-serving testimony, “[i]f based on personal knowledge or firsthand experience, ” can be evidence of disputed material facts. Berry v. Chicago Transit Authority, 618 F.3d 688, 691 (7th Cir. 2010).

         I. Civil Rights Violation Under ...


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