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Bless v. Cook County Sheriff's Office

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

July 19, 2018

ROBERT BLESS, Plaintiff,
v.
COOK COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE, TOM DART in his official and individual capacity; DEWAYNE HOLBROOK; JOSEPH WAYS, SR.; ZELDA WITTLER, SHERYL COLLINS; EDWARD DYNER; HENRY HEMPHILL; ROSEMARIE NOLAN; COOK COUNTY SHERIFF'S MERIT COMMISSION; COOK COUNTY, a unit of local government, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          John Z. Lee United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Robert Bless has brought an Illinois state law claim seeking review of an administrative decision by the Cook County Sheriff's Merit Commission (“Merit Board”) that terminated his employment as a police officer with the Cook County Sheriff's Office (“CCSO”). Bless seeks adjudication of this claim (Count IV of his complaint) based on the administrative record, which requires the Court to resolve the issue as a motion for summary judgment. For the reasons stated herein, Bless's motion is granted in part and denied in part.

         Background [1]

         Plaintiff Robert Bless worked as a police officer for the CCSO from 1997 until the Merit Board voted to terminate his employment on May 6, 2013. R. at 24-28.[2]During some years of his employment with the CCSO, Bless also worked as a lawyer and as a McHenry County Board Commissioner. R. at 488, 496-97.

         In September 2008, Bless was injured in a vehicle accident while on duty, interrupting his employment as a patrol officer. R. at 435, 512-15. Between September 2008 and November 2010, Bless was placed on injured on-duty status and received workers' compensation temporary disability benefits. R. at 435, 512-15. During this time, Bless continued his work as a McHenry County Commissioner and in his private law practice. R. at 489-98.

         The CCSO permits employees to work second jobs if the employee submits secondary employment forms and receives authorization from the CCSO. R. at 1083- 91. Bless claims that he properly submitted secondary employment forms for both his law practice and his role with McHenry County during all time periods, R. at 499, 507-08; Pl.'s Mem. Supp. at 4-6, ECF No. 291. But Defendants assert that Bless had no secondary employment authorization on file from December 2008 through 2010, while he was on leave from the CCSO, R. at 498-500, 509, 511, 560-61; Defs.' Mem. Opp'n Admin. Review at 12, ECF No. 301.

         In May 2011, the CCSO's Office of Professional Review (“OPR”) initiated administrative charges against Bless and recommended his termination on the basis that he had received workers' compensation benefits and salary from the CCSO while working unauthorized second jobs from December 2008 through 2010. R. at 455, 693- 95, 1110-11, 1262-63. The Cook County Sheriff, Thomas Dart, filed formal charges with the Merit Board based on these purported grounds in October 2011. R. at 18- 23.

         The Merit Board is an administrative body created by Illinois statute, and its members are appointed by the Cook County Sheriff and approved by the Cook County Board of Commissioners (“County Board”). 55 Ill. Comp. Stat. Ann. 5/3-7002. The Merit Board issued a written decision on May 6, 2013, terminating Bless's employment with the CCSO. R. at 18-28. At the time of the Merit Board's decision, John Rosales was a member of the Board and participated in the decision to terminate Bless. As is further explicated below, the Illinois Appellate Court ruled in 2017 that Rosales was not lawfully appointed to serve on the Merit Board at the time relevant here. See Taylor v. Dart, 81 N.E.3d 1, 4, 8, 10 (Ill.App.Ct. 2017).

         Bless timely filed a claim seeking administrative review of the Merit Board's decision to terminate his employment pursuant to Illinois's Administrative Review Law, 735 Ill. Comp. Stat. Ann. 5/3-110.[3] 3d Am. Compl. ¶¶ 116-20. Bless asks the Court to vacate as void the Merit Board's termination decision and to reinstate Bless with full back pay and benefits. 3d Am. Compl. ¶¶ 116-120.[4]

         Legal Standard

         A claim seeking review of an Illinois administrative body's decision is governed by Illinois's Administrative Review Law, which limits judicial review to the administrative record. Lalowski v. City of Des Plaines, 789 F.3d 784, 794 (7th Cir. 2015) (citing 735 Ill. Comp. Stat. Ann. 5/3-110). When a federal district court considers such a claim, it “resolves the issue [through] summary judgment.” Lalowski, 789 F.3d at 794.

         “The court shall grant summary judgment 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); see also Grochocinski v. Mayer Brown Rowe & Maw, LLP, 719 F.3d 785, 794 (7th Cir. 2013). The court “constru[es] all facts and draw[s] all reasonable inferences from the record in the light most favorable to the nonmovant.” Smith v. City of Chi., 242 F.3d 737, 742 (7th Cir. 2001).

         Analysis

         Bless argues that the Merit Board's decision to terminate his employment must be vacated because, pursuant to the Illinois Appellate Court's recent decision in Taylor, 81 N.E.3d at 10, the Merit Board was illegally constituted at the time of the determination, and therefore its decision is void under state law.[5] Pl.'s Mem. Supp. at 11-12. ...


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