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Schmoeller v. Village of Island Lake

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

June 18, 2018

Garrett Schmoeller, Plaintiff,
v.
Village of Island Lake, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Manish S. Shah United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Garrett Schmoeller was a police officer in the Village of Island Lake. Schmoeller attained the rank of sergeant before he was demoted due to procedural defects in the promotion. Schmoeller was given the chance to try again, but the Village's Board of Fire and Police Commissioners passed Schmoeller over, choosing to promote another officer instead. Schmoeller contends that the promotion denial was based on his political associations. The officer who received the promotion had supported the winning candidate in the recent mayoral election, but Schmoeller did not. Schmoeller filed suit, alleging a violation of his First Amendment rights. About a year after he filed suit, the Village terminated Schmoeller's employment. In his amended complaint, Schmoeller brings claims of First Amendment violations and tortious interference with prospective economic advantage against the Village, the mayor, the commissioners, and two of his supervisors at the police department. Defendants move for summary judgment. For the reasons stated below, the motion is granted.

         I. Legal Standards

         Summary judgment is appropriate if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A genuine dispute as to any material fact exists if “the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The movant bears the burden of establishing that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). “To survive summary judgment, the nonmoving party must show evidence sufficient to establish every element that is essential to its claim and for which it will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Diedrich v. Ocwen Loan Servicing, LLC, 839 F.3d 583, 591 (7th Cir. 2016) (citation omitted). All facts and reasonable inferences are construed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Laborers' Pension Fund v. W.R. Weis Co., Inc., 879 F.3d 760, 766 (7th Cir. 2018).

         II. Facts

         Plaintiff Garrett Schmoeller became a full-time police officer at the Village of Island Lake Police Department in 2004. [68] ¶ 2.[1] At the time, Charles Amrich was the Village's mayor, but Amrich was replaced the following year after losing the election to Debbie Herrmann. [68] ¶¶ 3, 24. Over the next several years, Schmoeller received some reprimands, mostly for repeated attendance issues. [68] ¶¶ 5-6, 9. Then, in 2011, Schmoeller was promoted to “probationary sergeant.” [68] ¶ 13. But it did not last.

         In 2013, Amrich defeated Herrmann to take back the mayoral seat. [68] ¶ 24. Amrich made some personnel changes, including changes to the Village's Board of Fire and Police Commissioners. The Board is responsible for hiring and promoting police officers and for terminating probationary officers. [68] ¶ 32. The commissioners at the relevant times for this lawsuit were Arnold Epstein, Debra Jenkins, and Tom Martin. [68] ¶ 29. Each of the commissioners had in some way supported Amrich in his mayoral campaign. [68] ¶¶ 21-22; [102] ¶ 11. In 2014, the commissioners discovered that some of the previous administration's sergeant promotions, including Schmoeller's, were invalid due to procedural errors. [68] ¶¶ 33, 35. So Schmoeller was informed of the news and given the opportunity to retake the sergeants' test to qualify for the promotion under the proper procedures. [68] ¶ 36.

         At the same time, Bill Dickerson was vying for promotion to sergeant. Dickerson had recently re-joined the police department after being fired during his probationary period in 2010. [68] ¶ 61. Dickerson's termination was based on allegations that included insubordination and taking “breaks” at his house while on duty. [102] ¶ 5. In the year following his termination from the Village, Dickerson pleaded guilty to a disorderly conduct charge for an altercation with his then girlfriend and had orders of protection issued against him on behalf of his ex- girlfriend and ex-wife. [102] ¶ 6. Dickerson supported Amrich's bid for mayor in 2013 by putting up campaign signs, writing blog articles, canvassing, and donating $20. [102] ¶ 7. After the election, the Village's board of trustees voted on whether to reinstate Dickerson to the police force. [68] ¶ 62. The vote resulted in a tie, so Amrich cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of reinstating Dickerson. [68] ¶ 63.

         Schmoeller, Dickerson, and others took the sergeants' test in 2014, [68] ¶ 38, though there were a few wrinkles. Dickerson was given an older version of the test-the version that was in place in 2012-in an effort to correct for Dickerson's earlier termination, which the commissioners believed was done illegally and contrary to proper procedure. [102] ¶ 22. In contrast, Schmoeller and others got a new version of the test. [102] ¶ 23. Dickerson also had a few months' more notice of the test to prepare. [102] ¶ 23. Schmoeller did not hear about the date of the oral component of the exam until another candidate told him. [102] ¶ 28. After receiving the results of the test, the commissioners noticed that the test included a 75-question section that not all of the candidates realized would be on the test. [68] ¶ 40. To compensate, the commissioners omitted that section from all of the candidates' scores. [68] ¶ 40. The test scores were combined with any applicable bonus points for military service as well as “chief points” (discretionary points awarded by the chief of police) to compile a ranking of the candidates. [68] ¶ 41. The commissioners were legally obligated to choose from among the top three candidates on the list-those candidates were Officer Deuter, Schmoeller, and Dickerson, in that order. [68] ¶¶ 41, 44.

         The commissioners first selected Deuter (who, like Schmoeller, had previously been improperly selected for promotion under the previous administration). [68] ¶ 45. Then the choice for the second available sergeant position came down to Schmoeller or Dickerson. The commissioners chose not to consider chief points, preferring instead to focus on the candidates' test scores. [68] ¶¶ 47-48. Dickerson scored higher than Schmoeller on the test. [68] ¶ 47. Commissioner Jenkins also told the other commissioners that she had negative experiences with Schmoeller in the past and felt as though he had stalked her. [68] ¶ 49. The commissioners did not discuss any of the candidates' political associations. [68] ¶ 50. The commissioners unanimously decided to select Dickerson instead of Schmoeller, and the appointment was approved. [68] ¶ 45.

         Schmoeller filed this lawsuit in November 2015. [1]. In March 2016, Schmoeller wrote a memo to Chief Anthony Sciarrone, who Amrich had appointed just about a year earlier, to say that he had been reassigned to a patrol vehicle he believed was unsafe and that he felt as though the reassignment was retaliation for his lawsuit. [68] ¶ 30; [102] ¶ 39. Dickerson, now a sergeant, responded on behalf of Sciarrone, stating, among other things, that future unfounded accusations of retaliation could be viewed as insubordination. [102] ¶ 39. In September 2016, Schmoeller was reprimanded for telling an inappropriate joke back in March of that year, and Schmoeller received a negative performance review from Dickerson (and signed by Sciarrone), which was abnormal because Dickerson had never evaluated anyone else. [102] ¶¶ 36, 38, 40.

         Also in September 2016, a video surfaced on Facebook of an arrest Schmoeller had assisted with several months before. [68] ¶ 70. The arresting officer, Gale Holford, had told a citizen to leave a bar, and, as the citizen was walking away while filming Holford, decided to arrest him. [68-1] at 254:12-258:18; [98]. Schmoeller appeared after the arrest was already underway, to provide assistance. [68-9] at 27:6-22; [98]. The video does not provide much visual depiction of the arrest itself, but Schmoeller's voice can be heard saying, “I'm gonna show you pain, ” in response to the arrestee's expression of discomfort. [98]; see also [68-12] at 25. The police department investigated the allegations of misconduct, and Dickerson played a role in the investigation. [102] ¶ 48. Ultimately, Sciarrone submitted recommendations to Amrich that both Holford and Schmoeller be fired. [68] ¶¶ 74, 76. Amrich rejected Sciarrone's recommendation as to Holford, choosing to suspend him instead, but accepted Sciarrone's recommendation to terminate Schmoeller. [68] ¶¶ 77, 80. Schmoeller was terminated in November 2016. [68] ¶ 80.

         III. Analysis

         A. First ...


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