Blowing the Whistle: Former Illinois Police Officer’s Retaliation Lawsuit
The police are there to ensure that laws are neutrally enforced. However, when police start showing favoritism to those with political connections, it often must be the police themselves who bring it to the attention of the public. This was the situation which, at least allegedly, faced former Village of Orland Hills police officer Mr. David Kristofek.
Mr. Kristofek has been embroiled in a lawsuit with both the Village and its police chief for several years, accusing them of firing him in retaliation for his reporting inappropriate police behavior to the FBI. After narrowly avoiding dismissal several times, his case has just recently passed the summary judgement phase.
The Village of Orland Hills Turns a Blind Eye
The facts certainly don’t look good for the Orland Hills police. After a traffic stop revealed that that a young man named Alonzo Marshall was driving a car with a suspended registration due to lack of insurance, Mr. Kristofek—along with two other police officers—arrested the man per police department policy.
However, after a slew of phone calls between Mr. Marshall, his mother, the Mayor of Village of Orland Hills, and the police chief Thomas Scully, Mr. Marshall was released and all record of the arrest was confiscated from Mr. Kristofek and deleted from police computers. When Mr. Kristofek complained to the deputy police chief about the situation, he was told ““Did you not understand what you were [expletive] told?” The deputy later told Mr. Kristofek that the situation was “above you and me.”
Several months later, Mr. Kristofek attended a training seminar on official police misconduct. Ironically, the seminar included a hypothetical with near identical facts to the incident with Mr. Marshall and described it as official misconduct. Mr. Kristofek grew concerned that he may be criminally liable for his actions and sought legal advice on the issue. He was advised to report the incident to the FBI and reached out to the other two police officers on the arrest to join him in reporting the misconduct. The other two officers both declined and Mr. Kristofek reported the incident alone. What the two officers did do, however, was inform the police chief—Mr. Scully—that Mr. Kristofek was speaking with the FBI.
After learning this, Mr. Scully called Mr. Kristofek to his office, had him confirm that he was speaking to the FBI, and offered him a choice to resign or be fired. Kristofek refused to tender his resignation and was fired. Scully spoke with a Village Administrator who approved the firing. The stated reason was that Kristofek “contacted several members of this agency, telling them that the Chief of Police was a criminal and was going to be indicted,” and had “accused the Village of being corrupt.”
Mr. Kristofek filed a retaliation lawsuit against both Police Chief Scully and the Village of Orland Hills itself shortly after this.
Retaliation, at its most basic, is where an employer takes negative employment action (firing, demoting, etc.) against an employee for some sort of protected conduct. Most retaliation lawsuits deal with an employee being fired for reporting an employer’s illegal employment practices. However, it can apply where an employer takes negative employment action for basically any action an employee takes that is protected by law.
Here, Mr. Kristofek is making a First Amendment retaliation claim, arguing that he—as an employee of the government—was fired for exercising his right to free speech. This a claim that only really applies to public employees as private employers have a great deal of leeway when it comes to firing you for speech they don’t agree with.
In order to succeed in a First Amendment retaliation claim, a public employee such as Mr. Kristofek must show three things:
- their speech was constitutionally protected,
- this protected speech was the cause of negative employment action taken against them by their employer, and
- the employee suffered a harm as a result of this negative employment action.
In this case, the last bit isn’t particularly controversial; if you lose your job, you have been harmed. The evidence also seems to point towards Mr. Kristofek being fired over speaking to the FBI. This means that the more complicated issue is whether his speech was protected.
It certainly seems like it should be. If police aren’t protected when they blow the whistle on the misconduct of their fellow officers, it sets a heck of a bad precedent.
Mr. Kristofek’s Case So Far
The district court has dismissed Mr. Kristofek’s case not once, but twice, ruling against him on essentially every factor from whether he was speaking pursuant to his duties to whether the speech was even of public concern. Fortunately, the 7th Circuit Appeals court has reversed the district court both times and salvaged Mr. Kristofek’s lawsuit. This most recent time, the 7th Circuit has even assigned a new district court judge to review the case.
Scully successfully argued to the district court that reporting police misconduct is part of a policeman’s duties and thus speech in this vein is not made as a private citizen. He also argued that the speech was not of public concern, the interest in efficient police duties outweighed the interest in reporting to the FBI, and that the allegations themselves were baseless.
The 7th Circuit Appeals Court was buying none of it. Not only did they point out that courts have always considered reporting corruption a matter of serious public concern, they rejected Sully’s argument that reporting corruption was part of Kristofek’s job. This argument seems particularly silly; it amounts to an argument that Kristofek was fired for doing his job. However, the court rejected it on the grounds that there was no evidence that Kristofek had a duty as an officer to report the incident. The truth of the statements was ruled to be irrelevant because Kristofek’s speech would be protected, regardless of truthfulness, unless he actually knew or was reckless in not knowing that his allegations were false.
While the court felt that the interests weighed in favor of Mr. Kristofek in this case, they made it clear that there could be some cases where the interest in reporting potential misconduct could be outweighed by the disruption it could cause. Misconduct, as a strong public concern, requires a particularly convincing reasons to outweigh the public’s interest. However, where there is little factual basis to the allegations, the court said that the public’s interest could be outweighed.
Preventing police corruption is extremely important, just like all government corruption. The people closest to that corruption are the public employees who work around it. It’s important that we zealously protect their ability to report misconduct because these employees may be the only people who could report such conduct. This case is far from over, but the 7th Circuit Appeals court has helped ensure that public employees are receiving the protection they need.