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Davis v. Village of Hazel Crest

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

February 13, 2018

WILLIAM P. DAVIS, Plaintiff,


          Robert M. Dow, Jr. United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff William Davis (“Plaintiff”) brings suit against Defendants the Village of Hazel Crest (“Village”), Village President Vernard L. Alsberry, Jr. (“Alsberry”), and Village Trustees Mary Grant, Kevin Moore, Susan Pate, Benjamin Ramsey, and Sandra Slayton (collectively, the “Trustees”) for alleged violations of federal and Illinois law arising out of the elimination of Plaintiff's position as Director of Communications and Public Outreach for the Village. Currently before the Court is Defendants' motion to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim [14]. For the reasons explained below, Defendants' motion [14] is granted in part and denied in part. The Court grants the motion to dismiss Counts I (retaliation/wrongful discharge), II (breach of contract/wrongful termination), and IV (procedural Due Process) as to all Defendants. The Court grants the motion to dismiss Count III (violation of the First Amendment) as to the Individual Defendants but denies the motion to dismiss Count III as to the Village. This case is set for status hearing on February 27, 2018 at 9:30 a.m.

         I. Background[1]

         The Village is operated under a “Manager Form of Government” pursuant to Article 5 of the Illinois Municipal Code, Section 2-159 (the “Code”). [14-2] at 2. Under the Code, a Village President has no authority to appoint department heads or to hire, fire or direct Village employees. Instead, these powers are bestowed on the appointed (not elected) Village Manager. A Village President also does not have unilateral authority to appoint or terminate the Village Manager. That authority is held jointly by the Village President and Village Board of Trustees.

         In April 2012, the then-Village Manager, James Whigham, hired Plaintiff as the Director of Communications and Public Outreach. Plaintiff accepted employment “in reliance on the Code which, as a matter of public policy, prohibited political hiring and firing by the Village President and/or the Village Board of Trustees.” [14-2] at 3. Shortly after Plaintiff accepted employment at the Village, Alsberry became Village President.

         Plaintiff alleges that during the course of his employment, Alsberry “repeatedly violated, or attempted to violate, the Code by forcing hires or orchestrating the termination of certain Village employees for political reasons and attempting to illegally direct and/or influence Village employees' activities.” Id. Plaintiff openly opposed and interfered with Alsberry's efforts by preventing him from forcing his preferential patronage hires at the Village. Alsberry did not consider Plaintiff to be a part of his political team and plotted to remove Plaintiff from his position.

         On April 30, 2015, Defendants, without warning or explanation, cancelled Plaintiff's medical benefits. The next day, May 1, 2015, Alsberry convened a special board meeting to vote to terminate Plaintiff's employment. Plaintiff alleges that this violated Section 2-159 of the Village Code which states:

Neither the president nor the board of trustees shall direct or request the appointment of any person to, or his removal from, office by the manager or any of his subordinates, or in any manner take part in the appointment or removal of officers and employees in the administrative services of the village, except as otherwise provided by law or elsewhere in this division or this Code. Except for the purpose of inquiry, the board of trustees shall deal with the administrative service solely through the manager and neither the board nor any member thereof, shall give orders to any subordinates of the manager, either publicly or privately.

[14-2] at 4.

         Just prior to the special board meeting, the Village Manager, Marlo Kemp (“Kemp”) informed the Individual Defendants that their plan to terminate Plaintiff “was illegal and should not be done; procedurally, Defendants could not eliminate an entire department without a budget amendment that reflected that elimination and accounted for the employees and other expenses in the eliminated department.” Id.

         During the special board meeting, Alsberry and the other Individual Defendants ignored Kemp's warning and terminated Plaintiff's employment. Defendants allegedly “attempted to cover their illegal tracks by eliminating Department 15 at the Village; if Plaintiff's entire department was eliminated, he was eliminated.” Id. at 5. However, Plaintiff alleges, “Defendants never actually eliminated Department 15 from the Village budget”; Defendants continue to pay Village expenses from Department 15; and Plaintiff's position and salary were in Department 11, not Department 15. Id. Immediately after the meeting, Defendants deactivated Plaintiff's access card, locked him out of his office, and refused to pay his salary and benefits. Defendants also placed Kemp on administrative leave and terminated his employment. Kemp has also filed suit against Defendants.

         Plaintiff brings a four-count complaint against the Village, Alsberry, and the Trustees. In this opinion, the Court refers to Alsberry and the Trustees collectively as the “Individual Defendants.”

         First, Plaintiff brings a state-law claim for retaliation and wrongful discharge against all Defendants. Plaintiff alleges that only the Village Manager (Kemp) was authorized under the Village Code to terminate his employment. Nonetheless, Plaintiff alleges that, in retaliation for his opposition to Alsberry's violations of the Village Code, Defendants terminated his health insurance benefits, unlawfully terminated his employment by pretending to eliminate Department 15, locked him out of his office, and refused to pay his salary and benefits.

         Second, Plaintiff brings a state-law claim for breach of contract/wrongful termination against all Defendants. Plaintiff alleges that the “terms of employment included” Section 2-159 of the Code (quoted above) and that he “relied upon the Code in accepting employment at the Village.” [14-2] at 9. Plaintiff alleges that Defendants violated Section 2-159 and breached his contractual rights by wrongfully terminating his employment.

         Third, Plaintiff claims that all Defendants violated his First Amendment right to free speech and to be free from retaliation for exercising his right to free speech. Plaintiff alleges that he openly disagreed with Alsberry's political hiring and firing in violation of the Code and Alsberry's attempts to force political “patronage” hiring in the Village. [14-2] at 11. As a consequence, Plaintiff alleges, Defendants “targeted [him] for retaliation, including effectively terminating [him] under the guise of ‘eliminating his department', in violation of the First Amendment.” Id.

         Fourth, Plaintiff contends that Defendants violated his right to procedural due process by convening a special board meeting to terminate his employment without authority and in violation of Section 2-159 of the Code, covering up their illegal actions under the ...

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