HCB Attorneys Prevail Before Federal Judge and Jury On Behalf of City of Kankakee in Police Discipline and Promotion Dispute

July 3, 2019

Plaintiff Richard Brooks, a City of Kankakee police officer, sued his employer for alleged employment discrimination in Brooks v. City of Kankakee, Case No. 17-cv-2265 (C. D. Ill). Brooks claimed that the City’s failure to promote him to sergeant and that several instances of on-the-job discipline were unlawful retaliation for his past complaints about alleged racial bias in the Kankakee Police Department. The City sought summary judgment, and on April 12, 2019, Judge Colin S. Bruce of the Central District of Illinois granted the City’s motion on all but one of Brooks’ claims.

As to Brooks’ failure-to-promote claim, the Court agreed with the City that because Brooks never placed in the top three on the City’s competitive promotional testing process, and because state law required the City to pick from among the top three candidates when promoting a patrol officer to sergeant, Brooks was not qualified—indeed he was not even legally eligible—for promotion to sergeant. Thus, any “discrimination” or “retaliation” claim based on his lack of promotion was meritless. Also, as to two of Brooks’ retaliatory discipline claims, the City showed that white officers received similar discipline for similar policy violations (namely, violation of the high-speed pursuit policy). Brooks did not respond to this argument, let alone refute the City’s evidence of even-handed discipline, so the Court dismissed those retaliatory claims on summary judgment. Finally, the Court also rejected Brooks’ attempt to dodge summary judgment by adding a new “disparate impact” claim to his case at the eleventh hour.

But the Court denied the City’s motion on one of Brooks’ claims. This claim was based on a letter of reprimand the former City Chief of Police, Larry Regnier, issued Brooks for making “false and disparaging” statements about the police department. The reprimand also ordered Brooks to stop making such statements in the future. Brooks argued that the statements referenced in the reprimand letter were simply his public complaints about unlawful racial bias, and that his public statements were true, or, at least, that he had a good-faith basis for believing they were true. The City’s position was that Brooks’ statements were factually, demonstrably false, namely that the City of Kankakee was subject to a consent decree (it was not) and that “nothing was being done” about misconduct by other officers. The Court held that this dispute boiled down to an issue of credibility for a jury.

The trial occurred at the federal courthouse in Urbana, Illinois the week of April 30, 2019. The City’s trial theme was that Brooks was entitled to his own opinion about race discrimination, but he was not entitled to his own facts. Through its witnesses, the City showed that Brooks’ publicly-proffered “facts” were in fact not true, and Brooks had no good faith basis to claim otherwise. After deliberating about three hours, the jury agreed and ruled for the City. Hervas, Condon, & Bersani attorneys Mike Condon, Charles Hervas, and David Mathues represented the City.

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