A state appellate court has reinstated a lawsuit brought against the city of Chicago by the former executive director of its office of compliance, which is tasked with reviewing city hiring decisions to prevent patronage hires.
Anthony Boswell had sued the city for breach of contract, saying city officials harassed and obstructed his work throughout his tenure at City Hall, leading to his resignation.
A Cook County judge had dismissed his claims in March 2015, finding the city’s ordinance creating the executive director position did not create a contract between Boswell and the city.
A three-justice panel of the Illinois First District Appellate Court, however, said the trial court was wrong.
Justices also disagreed with the city’s assertion that Boswell’s case must be considered in isolation and not against the backdrop of the so-called Shakman litigation, a complex series of legal issues challenging longstanding practices of patronage and nepotism in Chicago and throughout the state of Illinois. Though Boswell did not specifically bring up Shakman in his complaint, Justice Michael B. Hyman wrote in the majority opinion that the specter of the city’s past hiring practices could not be ignored.
“The context of the municipal ordinance at issue and the hiring of Boswell relate directly to that epic litigation, with this case serving as yet another sordid episode in a long, tangled and distinctly Chicago saga,” he wrote.
In 2007, the city created an office of compliance to oversee the city’s hiring practices and replace a federally appointed hiring monitor. Boswell was named executive director of the new office, which was approved by the federal district court in 2008. As established, the office was to be independent of the city and the executive director was to have no connections to the city or its politics, was to be appointed for a set four-year term and could not be removed without cause.
Boswell resigned from the job in 2010 and filed his lawsuit in 2014, claiming breach of contract and, if that should fail, promissory estoppel. His complaint alleged that city officials obstructed him in his work and retaliated against him when he performed the functions of his office, attempting to carry on entrenched hiring practices while the office of compliance looked the other way.
In 2015, the trial court granted the city’s motion to dismiss, finding that there was no contract to be breached. In reversing the dismissal, the appellate court said that Boswell overcame the legal presumption that an ordinance is not intended to create private contractual rights. The ordinance lays out specific rights the executive director has in termination procedures, which the appellate court read as employee rights such as those that would be established by a contract.
The court also considered the effect the Shakman litigation might have had on the city council’s intentions in crafting the ordinance. The point of the ordinance was to replace the federal hiring monitor, Hyman wrote, and without an “ironclad contract” the executive director would be powerless to enforce the hiring and personnel practices the federal court had imposed.
Justice John B. Simon disagreed with Hyman and Justice P. Scott Neville Jr., who had concurred in the majority opinion, and wrote a dissenting opinion in which he said it was “troubling” that the majority used Shakman to “overcome and supplement Boswell’s deficiency” in stating his claim. In his dissent, Simon wrote that there is no language in the Chicago ordinance that clearly implies an intent to create a contract with Boswell and no evidence that the ordinance was intended to benefit him as opposed to the public at large.
With the dismissal reversed, the complaint has been remanded to the trial court for further proceedings.
Boswell was represented in the action by attorneys with the firm of Stowell & Friedman, of Chicago.