A wrongful termination lawsuit brought by a former Cook County Sheriff’s deputy, who said Sheriff’s office officials used accusations of technical violations to disguise their actual, political motives for firing him, will be allowed to proceed against the Sheriff’s office after a federal judge refused to dismiss the action.
In an opinion issued March 8 in in Chicago, U.S. District Judge John Z. Lee wrote in support of plaintiff Robert Bless in his complaint against the office, Sheriff Tom Dart, the county, the Sheriff’s Merit Commission and seven other Sheriff’s office employees.
Bless argued he lost his job because he is a white Republican, which he said is a violation of his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights and the Civil Rights Act. He also brought a state law claim for review of the formal procedures that led to his dismissal. The sheriff’s office, the Merit Commission and defendant Henry Hemphill, a sheriff’s investigator, moved to dismiss some of the counts for failure to state a claim. Zee granted the Merit Commission’s motion, but denied the others.
Also a practicing attorney, Bless joined the office in 1997. He continued to practice law while employed by the Sheriff’s office and was a McHenry County Board member from 2008-2012. He said the sheriff’s office approved his secondary employment requests for both posts. He suffered an on-duty injury in September 2008, took “injury on duty” status and filed a workers’ compensation claim. While on medical leave, however, the office investigated “issues surrounding his secondary employment and receipt of disability checks was initiated.” Eventually, Dart asked the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office to bring felony charges against Bless.
Prosecutors, however, declined to file charges, and in October 2011 Dart filed administrative charges with the Merit Commission, requesting Bless be fired. Accusations included failure to obtain permission for secondary employment, not having permission for outside jobs while on disability and lying to investigators about his other work. The Merit Commission fired Bless in May 2013.
In denying Dart’s motion, Lee noted he had already found a year ago that Bless’ allegations under federal law were sufficient to proceed with the case. However, in moving to dismiss this version of the complaint, Hemphill argued the claims are no longer timely. Lee sided with Bless — not in holding Hemphill responsible for the firing, but with respect to the statute of limitations. The sheriff’s argument about timing was similarly rejected as Lee noted Bless began counting from the day he was fired, not the earlier date on which Dart first filed administrative charges.
With regards to the Merit Commission, Lee noted Bless “does not allege that an express policy of race discrimination or political retaliation was in place at the sheriff’s office or within the Merit Commission. He instead contends that both entities have a ‘widespread practice’ of race discrimination and political retaliation and that his firing was the act of final policymakers who were motivated to violate his rights.”
Bless tried to argue the Merit Commission did not fire other employees who had similar professional situations, but different racial and political affiliations. Lee ultimately dismissed Bless’ wrongful termination complaints against the Merit Commission because, even if there are illegal policies in place, they are policies of Dart’s office, not of the Merit Commission itself. The judge did not, however, dismiss the board from Bless’ administrative review claims.
Lee called the Sheriff’s office’s argument for dismissal “a nonstarter,” noting almost no wrongful termination claims could proceed if a judge took the defendant’s account as truth. With specific regard to racial discrimination, Bless might have argued his termination was linked to his race, but he failed to prove systemic racism within Dart’s office. Yet because a single policymaker can be guilty of infringing on rights “within the realm of the policymaker’s actual policymaking authority” - in this case the Merit Commission acting as an agent of the Sheriff - Lee said Bless’ allegations can stand for now.
Bless is represented in the action by the firm of Kulwin, Masciopinto & Kulwin, of Chicago.
In addition to the accusations brought by Dart’s office, Bless has also run into trouble with the state’s lawyer disciplinary body. In 2014, the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission recommended Bless’ law license be suspended for three years based on accusations he engaged in a sexual relationship with a female client and accepted almost $200,000 in loans and investments from her.