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Lane v. The Village of Heyworth

Court of Appeals of Illinois, Fourth District

July 31, 2019

CHRISTOPHER LANE, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
THE VILLAGE OF HEYWORTH, a Municipal Corporation; TODD ZALUCHA, Mayor; and TOM HAYNES, HAROLD BROWN, DAN BILLINGTON, JIM LAUTERBERG, CLAY WISEMAN, and LYNNE BARNHILL, Trustees, Defendants-Appellants.

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of McLean County No. 16MR242 Honorable Rebecca S. Foley, Judge Presiding.

          Attorneys for Appellant: Julie A. Bruch and Karin L. Anderson, of O'Halloran Kosoff Geitner & Cook, LLC, of Northbrook, for appellants.

          Attorneys for Appellee: Richard F. Blass, of Richard F. Blass & Associates, LLC, of Elmhurst, for appellee.

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

          OPINION

          DeARMOND, JUSTICE

         ¶ 1 On February 16, 2016, Mayor Todd Zalucha removed Christopher Lane from his position as the appointed police chief of the Village of Heyworth (Village). On February 18, Mayor Zalucha informed the public of Lane's termination and met with the Village's board of trustees in an executive session to discuss the reasons for termination. On February 23, the Village's board of trustees refused to reinstate Lane. Lane and his attorney sent a letter to Mayor Zalucha advising the mayor that Lane never received the reasons for his removal in writing and, therefore, was not properly removed from his position. On February 25, Mayor Zalucha provided Lane with the reasons for his removal in writing. The reasons were served to the Village's board of trustees at the next regularly scheduled board meeting on March 3, 2016, and the Village's board of trustees voted against reinstatement. Lane sought review of that decision in the circuit court of McLean County, and the court awarded him back pay, benefits, and court costs.

         ¶ 2 On appeal, the Village argues the circuit court erred by (1) granting Lane's motion to modify the record on review, (2) finding Lane was removed twice for the same offense, and (3) exceeding its jurisdiction by awarding monetary damages. We reverse.

         ¶ 3 I. BACKGROUND

         ¶ 4 On February 5 and February 16, 2016, Mayor Zalucha met with the appointed police chief, Lane, about his employment with the Village. During the meetings, Mayor Zalucha laid out the grounds for termination and offered Lane the option of resigning, which Lane refused. After discussing the grounds for termination and Lane's refusal to resign, Mayor Zalucha fired Lane on February 16. On February 18, Mayor Zalucha read a statement to the public during an open board of trustees meeting, stating he had terminated Lane's employment as an appointed official and that he would not be discussing the specific reasons for termination due to the private and confidential nature of the information. The board members then went into an executive session, where the Village attorney, Geoff Dodds, and Mayor Zalucha discussed the conversations he had with Lane in the February 5 and February 16, 2016, meetings, as well as the reasons for the termination, including some that had only come to light after the meeting between the mayor and Lane on February 16. No formal vote was taken in the executive session.

         ¶ 5 The Village board of trustees met in a special open board meeting to vote on Lane's employment status on February 23, 2016. At the meeting, Mayor Zalucha read a prepared statement regarding Lane's removal as chief of police. The public statement said Lane's removal was "due to his performance not meeting expectations" and included references to Lane providing false information to the Village's liability insurance carrier and false statements to the press. The mayor stated it was his opinion the interests of the Village "demand removal."

         ¶ 6 After listening to comments from the public, the vote to reinstate Lane's employment was defeated by a 4 to 1 vote, with one member abstaining. On February 25, 2016, Lane, through his attorney, sent a letter to Mayor Zalucha informing him Lane had not been properly removed because the mayor failed to provide Lane with any written charges and the board had not been properly informed of the reasons for removal. The letter also outlined the claim Lane was denied due process in the actions leading up to his discharge by the Mayor.

         ¶ 7 As a result of Lane's letter, Mayor Zalucha served Lane with written charges on the same day, indicating Lane was being terminated for his "continual lack of honesty and for performance well below what is expected for being Chief of Police of the Village of Heyworth." At the next regular Village board meeting on March 3, 2016, Mayor Zalucha explained to the board members the prior attempt to remove Lane was "declared to be null and void." Mayor Zalucha stated he removed Lane on February 25, 2016, and provided him with the written charges against him. Lane's attorney was present and argued why he did not believe the previous effort to terminate his client was properly handled. He also argued on Lane's behalf to the residents of the Village who were present at the meeting. After further public comments, the vote to reinstate Lane was again defeated 4 to 1, with one member absent. Lane was officially terminated.

         ¶ 8 In April 2016, Lane petitioned the circuit court for a writ of certiorari to overturn his termination as police chief of the Village and reinstate him to that position with full back pay and benefits. In May 2016, the Village filed its answer and affirmative defenses, and pursuant to the procedure for review under a common law writ of certiorari, the Village filed a record of all matters relating to its decision to remove Lane. In January 2017, Lane filed a motion seeking to strike the Village's answer and affirmative defenses, as well as a motion to modify the record on review to include only the February 23 and March 3, 2016, meetings and the open and closed session minutes or recordings of those meetings. In February 2017, the Village filed its response. The court granted Lane's motion to modify the record on review. In October 2017, ...


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