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Sweeney v. City of Decatur

Court of Appeals of Illinois, Fourth District

March 24, 2017

BRADLEY L. SWEENEY, Plaintiff-Appellant,
THE CITY OF DECATUR, Defendant-Appellee.

         Appeal from Circuit Court of Macon County No. 16L18 Honorable Albert G. Webber, Judge Presiding.

          PRESIDING JUSTICE TURNER delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices Harris and Steigmann concurred in the judgment and opinion.



         ¶ 1 In February 2016, plaintiff, Bradley L. Sweeney, filed a two-count complaint against defendant, the city of Decatur (City), his former employer, and Tim Gleason, the City's manager. In April 2016, plaintiff filed an amended complaint against only the City. In response, the City filed a combined motion to dismiss the amended complaint under section 2-619.1 of the Code of Civil Procedure (Code) (735 ILCS 5/2-619.1 (West 2014)). After a June 2016 hearing, the Macon County circuit court granted the City's motion and dismissed with prejudice plaintiff's amended complaint under section 2-615 of the Code (735 ILCS 5/2-615 (West 2014)).

         ¶ 2 Plaintiff appeals, contending the circuit court erred by dismissing his claim (1) brought under section 15(b) of the Whistleblower Act (740 ILCS 174/15(b) (West 2014)) because that provision (a) only requires disclosure of suspected law violations to a government or law enforcement agency and (b) does not require the employee to also refuse to participate in the activity and (2) of common-law retaliatory discharge based on the public policy protecting (a) whistleblowing and (b) the freedom of speech under the first amendment (U.S. Const., amend. I). We affirm.

         ¶ 3 I. BACKGROUND

         ¶ 4 In the February 2016 complaint, plaintiff asserted a claim of common-law retaliatory discharge and a violation of the Whistleblower Act (740 ILCS 174/1 et seq. (West 2014)) against the City and Gleason. The City and Gleason filed a section 2-619.1 motion to dismiss. After an April 2016 hearing, the circuit court granted the motion to dismiss under section 2-615 and allowed plaintiff to replead.

         ¶ 5 Plaintiff's April 2016 amended complaint again asserted retaliatory discharge and Whistleblower Act claims but only against the City. The amended complaint alleged that, in January 2015, Ryan McCrady, then the City's manager, appointed plaintiff as the City's police chief. As the police chief, plaintiff reported directly to the city manager. In March 2015, Gleason became the City's manager. In May 2015, Gleason told plaintiff to provide a police car and uniformed officer to drive him to the St. Louis airport to catch a plane for a vacation after the City's State of the City address. Plaintiff reported to Gleason his personal use of public resources was improper. Gleason then ordered plaintiff to have the car waiting at the City's civic center to transport him to St. Louis. Plaintiff discussed the situation with the deputy chief of police, Jim Getz, who agreed Gleason's personal use of the officer and police car was improper but volunteered to drive Gleason. While on duty, Getz drove Gleason to the St. Louis airport in his police vehicle. Plaintiff "involuntarily allowed, " but did not order, Gleason's personal use of police resources. After Gleason returned from vacation, plaintiff again told Gleason his use of a police car and driver for his personal use was improper. While Gleason stated he understood plaintiff's objection to his use of the officer and car, their relationship was difficult after the conversation. Plaintiff alleged Gleason's actions violated (1) the official misconduct statute (720 ILCS 5/33-3 (West 2014)); (2) the City's police department's general order No. 11-03, which prohibits the use of departmental vehicles outside the City's limits for personal business; (3) chapter eight of the City's code, which prohibits a City officer or employee from the solicitation or acceptance of gifts prohibited by the State Officials and Employees Ethics Act (Ethics Act) (5 ILCS 430/1-1 et seq. (West 2014)); (4) the Ethics Act; and (5) article VIII, section 1(a), of the Illinois Constitution of 1970 (Ill. Const. 1970, art. VIII, § 1(a)), which provides "[p]ublic funds, property or credit shall be used only for public purposes." Plaintiff contends Gleason knew or should have known his personal use of the police car and officer was improper because he was then a member of the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board and a former police lieutenant.

         ¶ 6 The complaint further alleged that, in January 2016, Gleason asked plaintiff to make a public statement supporting Gleason's request for a new local motor fuel tax at the City council meeting. Plaintiff refused to make the requested public statement. Gleason responded with hostility and told plaintiff to leave his office. The complaint alleged matters of tax policy were outside the scope of plaintiff's job duties as police chief.

         ¶ 7 On February 2, 2016, Gleason and the City department heads, including plaintiff, met at the City's civic center. During the meeting, Gleason requested input from those present. When it came to his turn, plaintiff responded the City had other potential revenue sources and stated his opposition to a further tax increase. Gleason became furious and ordered plaintiff to leave the meeting. Later that day and the next day, Gleason asked plaintiff the following questions: " 'Do you know who you work for?' and 'Do you want to keep your job as Police Chief?' " On February 4, 2016, Gleason asked plaintiff to resign. When plaintiff refused to resign, he received a written notice of termination.

         ¶ 8 As to his retaliatory discharge claim, plaintiff alleges his termination was in retaliation for his (1) "disclosure regarding Gleason's personal use of a Decatur police car and uniformed officer"; (2) "refusal to make a public statement at the City Council meeting supporting Gleason's proposed motor fuel tax"; and (3) "February 2, 2016 statement in opposition to increasing taxes when he believed other sources of income were available to the City." He alleges his retaliatory termination violated on or more of the following clear mandates of public policy:

"(1) enforcing the State's criminal code and ethics regulations, (2) the policy of furthering investigation of a crime within a police department, (3) preventing the private use of public resources, in violation of Article VIII(1)(a) of the Illinois Constitution, (4) protecting the First Amendment rights of public employees to speak on matters of public concern outside the scope of their job duties, and (5) protecting the First Amendment right of a [sic] public employees to not be coerced by their government employers into engaging in political speech."

         ¶ 9 Regarding his claim under the Whistleblower Act, plaintiff asserted he disclosed certain information to Gleason, who was his sole supervisor and authorized by the City to receive such information on behalf of the City. He had a reasonable belief the information disclosed to Gleason concerned violations of the Illinois Constitution, as well as state laws, rules, and ethics regulations. Moreover, plaintiff contends Gleason, acting for and on behalf of the City in his capacity as city manager, retaliated against him by terminating his employment due to plaintiff's disclosure of information to Gleason, which plaintiff reasonably believed disclosed a violation of state law.

         ¶ 10 In May 2016, the City filed a combined motion to dismiss the amended complaint under section 2-619.1 of the Code. The section 2-615 part of the motion asserted plaintiff's retaliatory discharge claim should be dismissed for failure to state a clear mandate of public policy undermined by the discharge of an at-will employee. The City also argued both claims should be dismissed because they failed to allege whistleblowing activity. Moreover, the section 2-615 motion to dismiss contended the allegations regarding the first amendment failed to state a cause of action and the element of causation was defeated. The section 2-619 portion of the motion asserted (1) the allegations in the amended complaint and Gleason's ...

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