Appellate court extinguishes former fire commissioner's suit against Daley and chief of staff

By Jonathan Bilyk | Mar 27, 2015

The former city of Chicago fire commissioner who resigned under pressure allegedly from former Mayor Richard M. Daley amid an ongoing investigation into allegations of sexual harassment will not be allowed to continue suing Daley and the former mayor’s chief of staff Raymond Orozco over his claims the mayor improperly forced him out of his job simply because the mayor didn’t like him and wished to install someone else in the department’s top spot.

On March 18, a three justice panel of the Illinois First District Appellate Court upheld the decision of Cook County Circuit Judge James O’Hara to dismiss the suit brought against Daley and Orozco by former fire commissioner and 30-year veteran of the department John W. Brooks over the pair’s actions in 2010 to force him from his post.

In the opinion, authored by Justice Mary Anne Mason with justices Aurelia Pucinski and Michael B. Hyman concurring, the appellate panel found the lower court judge did not make a mistake in ruling Daley and Orozco were immune from litigation over their decision to force Brooks to resign without awaiting the conclusion of an ongoing investigation into the allegations against the fire commissioner, as the action fell within their discretion as public officials determining city policy.

“It is apparent that defendants had no duty, contractual or otherwise, to retain Brooks until the investigation concluded,” the justices wrote. “Given that defendants (Daley and Orozco) had authority to terminate Brooks, they could also validly threaten to terminate him unless he resigned from his position.”

The case centers on Brooks’ curious resignation as fire commissioner in May 2010.

Two years earlier, Daley had appointed Brooks to the position, in which he would serve as the Chicago Fire Department’s chief administrative officer, overseeing all operations and other functions of the third-largest fire protection service in the U.S., which boasts more than 5,000 employees and 98 fire stations.

The appointment was made as the mayor elevated Orozco from fire commissioner to the job of Executive Director of the Office of Emergency Management, creating a vacancy in the fire commissioner’s office.

While Brooks was then serving as first deputy fire commissioner and was “the expected and likely candidate” to succeed Orozco, according to Brooks’ complaint, Daley appointed Brooks to the post under duress, as he wished to instead appoint a different candidate from within the department, Robert Hoff. However, Orozco counseled the mayor he faced a “backlash” from firefighters if he didn’t appoint Brooks.

Brooks alleges at the time of his appointment, Orozco warned him the mayor “would be looking for any possible reason to remove him and replace him with Hoff.”

In early 2010, Brooks was accused by a female firefighter of sexual harassment. He denied the allegations and the city hired an independent firm to conduct the investigation.

While the investigation would ultimately clear Brooks, he alleges Orozco – who in early 2010 was promoted to Daley’s chief of staff – in April 2010 called him into his office and demanded he submit a letter of resignation, or the mayor would either fire or significantly demote him, which could negatively impact his pension.

Orozco tendered the resignation, which became effective May 28, 2010. Daley then appointed Hoff to replace him.

In his complaint, Brooks concedes he served as an at-will appointed employee.
However, he asserts the mayor did not have the authority to push him out until the sexual harassment investigation was concluded, and the fallout from the resignation has permanently damaged his career and reputation.

Further, Brooks contends Daley and Orozco should be held to account for their decision to force him out because it was not in the best interests of the city, but was “purely self-interested.” As such, he said, he opted to sue them individually, rather than as representatives of the city.

O’Hara and the appellate justices, however, disagreed, noting it was impossible under the law to separate the actions of Daley and Orozco in this situation from their positions.

“The allegation that Daley wanted Brooks out as fire commissioner because he ‘personally’ preferred to appoint another candidate does not transform an official discretionary act into one giving rise to personal liability,” the justices wrote.

Further, they said, it would not matter if Brooks could sustain his allegations the former mayor and chief of staff acted “with corrupt and malicious motives,” as the decision to hire or fire for an office like fire commissioner is “a judgment call” that is “is both a policy determination and a discretionary action” exempt by law from a legal action, like Brooks’.

And, the justices said, nothing in city ordinances or policies indicate the city had any obligation to allow Brooks to hold his job as the sexual harassment investigation continued.

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