by James G. Wargo (Summer 2018)
The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently found that the Village of Melrose Park did not violate a firefighter’s due process or equal protection rights when it terminated his employment for violating the Village’s residency ordinance. Cannici v. Village of Melrose Park, 885 F.3d 476 (2018). The case further illustrates the legal principle that the availability of review under the Illinois Administrative Review Law of a board of fire and police commissioners’ decision provides sufficient post-deprivation relief to defeat a federal due process claim by a terminated firefighter.
Plaintiff John Cannici was a firefighter employed by the Village of Melrose Park for sixteen years prior to his termination for violating the Village’s residency ordinance. Pursuant to the ordinance, all employees were required to be Village residents and maintain such residency during the term of his or her employment. Cannici and his family initially lived in a house in Melrose Park. In 2008, Cannici purchased a second home in Orland Park while maintaining his Melrose Park home. After purchasing this second home, Cannici continued to live at the Melrose Park home during the week while his family lived in the Orland Park home.
In 2013, Cannici rented out the Melrose Park home. In an apparent attempt to maintain his residency in Melrose Park, Cannici reserved a portion of the home’s basement for his exclusive use in the lease, kept certain belongings in the home, maintained access to the home, paid utilities and taxes for the home, and continued to use the Melrose Park address to receive his mail. However, Cannici reportedly primarily slept at his Orland Park home from 2013 to 2016.
In June 2016, the Village served Cannici with written charges for violating the residency ordinance. A hearing on these charges was then commenced before the Village’s Board of Fire and Police Commissioners (“Board”). At the hearing, Cannici asserted that since he had previously established residency in Melrose Park, Illinois law did not require him to maintain a physical presence in the Village as long as he had no intention of “abandoning residency.” During the hearing, Cannici testified regarding the circumstances surrounding his decision to rent the Melrose Park home and that he never intended to abandon the home for residency. Cannici v. Village of Melrose Park, 262 F. Supp.3d 591 (2017). Upon the conclusion of the hearing, the Board found that Cannici had violated the residency ordinance by failing to maintain his residency status from 2013 to 2016 and terminated his employment.
Cannici then filed a lawsuit in state court challenging his termination. Cannici’s complaint included a request for review of the Board’s decision under the Illinois Administrative Review Act as well as two federal §1983 claims alleging a violation of his right to due process and equal protection under the United States Constitution. The Village defendants removed the case to federal court and filed several motions to dismiss.
In his complaint, Cannici argued that the “Board’s decision mischaracterized his testimony, disregarded the evidence, and misapplied the law.” He also argued that despite the fact that several other Melrose Park firefighters had a similar living arrangement to his own, he was the only firefighter charged with violating the residency ordinance. The federal district court dismissed the federal due process and equal protection claims and remanded the case back to state court for a ruling on the administrative review of the Board’s decision. Cannici appealed the district court’s ruling to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of both the due process and equal protection claims. In analyzing Cannici’s due process claim, the court noted that there are two types of procedural due process claims, including claims based on “established state procedures” and claims based on “random and unauthorized acts of state employees.” In order to sustain a due process, claim under §1983, a plaintiff must allege “(1) deprivation of a protected interest, and (2) insufficient procedural protections surrounding that deprivation.” In order to determine whether an individual has been afforded sufficient procedural protections, a court must first determine whether the claim is based on a deprivation of “established state procedures” or the “random and unauthorized acts by state employees.”
Since the parties were in agreement that Cannici had a protected interest in his continued employment as a firefighter and the court’s conclusion that his claim was based on the random and unauthorized conduct of the Board, the court noted that a “meaningful post-deprivation remedy” would defeat the due process claim. In affirming the district court’s dismissal of the due process claim, the court noted that it has “found time and again that the Illinois Administrative Review Act provides sufficient post-deprivation relief.” As such, Cannici was required to avail himself of the review process under the Illinois Administrative Review Act to review the Board’s decision or demonstrate that such remedy is inadequate. In affirming the dismissal of the due process claim, the court reasoned that Cannici had not argued that he had not been afforded his rights under the Administrative Review Act or that the procedural protections under the Act were inadequate.
In analyzing the equal protection claim, the court noted that Cannici’s claim was based on the Village’s alleged selective enforcement of its residency ordinance.
Specifically, Cannici argued that several other Melrose Park firefighters had a similar living arrangement but were not charged with violating the ordinance. Cannici did not argue that he was treated differently because of his membership in a protected class but based on a “class-of-one” theory. Under a “class-of-one” equal protection claim, a plaintiff must show that he or she was “intentionally treated differently from others similarly situated and that there is no rational basis for the difference in treatment.” The court quickly affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the equal protection claim by concluding that it was foreclosed by the United States Supreme Court decision in Engquist v. Oregon Department of Agriculture, 553 U.S. 591 (2008), which decided that “class-of-one” claims do not apply in the public employment context.
The court further rejected Cannici’s argument that equal protection claims should not be precluded in all public employment contexts. Specifically, Cannici argued that since “just cause” was required for termination of an Illinois firefighter, his claim was distinguishable from the “at-will” public employment context in Engquist. While the court acknowledged the statutory “just cause” requirement for termination for a firefighter, these statutory protections did not provide “full protection from termination.” In fact, the court noted that the Village complied with the statutory “just cause” for termination provisions applicable to firefighters by providing Cannici with “written charges, a hearing, and the opportunity to present evidence.”
It is important to note that the court in Cannici did not rule on the residency issue as the administrative review count challenging the Board’s residency decision had been remanded back to state court for ruling. To date, we are not aware of the final outcome of that state court proceeding.
Setting aside any future decision on residency, the Cannici decision supports units of local government seeking to enforce their rules and regulations. A fire district or municipality’s termination of a firefighter does not rise to a constitutional violation just because the respective board of fire commissioners or board of fire and police commissioners misapplied or misinterpreted the law or because the firefighter believes he or she was treated unfairly. Judicial review under the Illinois Administrative Review Act is generally the appropriate avenue to seek redress and not a separate federal lawsuit.