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Zerla v. Stark County

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

July 25, 2019

FULVIO ZERLA, Plaintiff,
STARK COUNTY, ILLINOIS, and STEVE SLOAN, in his Individual and Official Capacity Defendants.


          James E. Shadid United States District Judge.

         This Motion comes before the Court on Defendants' Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 13). Plaintiff filed a Response (Doc. 14). For the reasons stated below, the Motion to Dismiss is DENIED.


         On April 25, 2019, Plaintiff brought his Complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983.[1] Doc. 1. Plaintiff alleges that Defendants violated his right to freedom of speech while acting under the color of state law. Id. at 2. On June 24, 2019, Defendants filed a Motion to Dismiss for failure to state a claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Doc. 13. On July 8, 2019, Plaintiff filed his Response to Defendants' Motion to Dismiss. Doc. 14.

         On January 13, 2015, Plaintiff was appointed to the Stark County Board. While on the County Board, Plaintiff had oversight responsibilities over county finances, which included “appropriations for the operations of the Sheriff's department.” Doc. 1, p. 3. Plaintiff and other board members would discuss budget and other policy positions at County Board meetings, at which Plaintiff stressed the importance of county departments staying within their budgets.

         Defendant Steve Sloan (“Sloan”) became Sheriff of Stark County on December 1, 2016. As Sheriff, Sloan is required to attend Board meetings to keep the peace. In the Spring of 2017, spending in the Sheriff's office was causing a budgetary crisis. Sloan met with Plaintiff and the Board Chairperson to resolve the spending issue. Sloan rejected the suggested changes to his office's spending made by the Plaintiff and Chairperson. Plaintiff then prepared a letter for the Chairperson that outlined the budget problems the Sheriff's office had created and indicated that if the office went over budget, the Chairperson did not foresee additional funding being appropriated for the office.

         During the March 9, 2017 Board meeting, Sloan became agitated at the Plaintiff and Chairperson over their insistence that the Sheriff's office stay within its budget. While performing his duties as Sheriff during the board meeting, Sloan stated that he would no longer work with the Plaintiff or Chairperson. Sloan then began yelling and making gestures at the Plaintiff which, according to the Plaintiff, made him and the other Board members believe Sloan was threatening the Plaintiff.

         During two subsequent board meetings in June 2017, protesters interrupted and caused the meetings to be cancelled. Prior to the June 13, 2017 meeting, Sloan urged supporters to attend the meeting for “intimidation purposes.” Id. at 4. Before the meeting started, Sloan held a rally outside the courthouse urging people to come inside and disrupt the meetings. The crowd entered the courthouse and caused the Plaintiff to push through a “hostile” crowd in order to take his seat. Id. Sloan began yelling before the meeting began for the Plaintiff and Chairperson to resign, and Sloan demanded his supporters yell louder. At the rescheduled meeting on June 15, 2017, Sloan allegedly paid individuals from a watchdog group to attend the meeting and they immediately disrupted the meeting by saying the meeting was illegal, causing the meeting to end.

         In the same month, Sloan released a voicemail from the Chairperson to the public about two individuals who were disrupting meetings. One of the individuals, in response, watched the Plaintiff and Chairperson and posted their location on Facebook. As a result, the Plaintiff and Chairperson resigned due to intimidation and a fear for their families' safety.

         Plaintiff claims that this intimidation prevented him from communicating his policy prescriptions for the budget and spending. Plaintiff also claims that Sloan's conduct was committed under color of state law as Sloan was Sheriff and was exercising that role during the board meetings. Finally, Plaintiff claims that as Sloan has final policymaking authority as Sheriff, Defendant Stark County (“Stark County”) is liable for Sloan's actions.

         Legal Standard

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) provides for dismissal where a Plaintiff fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. “To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 553 (2007)). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. “The facts alleged, plus reasonable inferences therefrom, are taken as true, and the question is then whether on those assumptions the plaintiff would have a right to legal relief.” Bane v. Ferguson, 890 F.2d 11, 13 (7th Cir. 1989).


         As Defendants have stated in their Motion to Dismiss, for Plaintiff to establish a prima facie case he must establish that (1) he engaged in activity protected by the First Amendment; (2) he suffered a deprivation that would likely deter First Amendment activity in the future, and (3) the First Amendment activity was a “at least a motivating factor” in the Defendants' decision to take the retaliatory action. Woodruff v. Mason, 542 F.3d 545, 551 (7th Cir. 2008) (quoting Massey v. Johnson, 457 F.3d 711, 716 (7th Cir. 2006)). Defendants argue that Plaintiff was not subject to First Amendment ...

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