Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A Raucous Night of Drinking Can Cost Police Officers Their Jobs

Off duty conduct, whether public or private, often has no bearing on an employee’s job status. Public safety jobs, though, are a notable exception to this general rule. Recently, Ancel Glink lawyers successfully defended the Village of Norridge in two appeals before the Illinois Appellate Court in which former police officers attempted to overturn their terminations by the Village as a result of their off duty conduct.

In Gomez v. Norridge Board of Fire and Police Commissioners, a police officer was fired after he was involved in an altercation at a bar. The officer, while intoxicated, left his gun at a bar after he was kicked out for instigating fights. When the officer returned to the bar for his gun, he and his friends started a fight, which resulted in the Cook County Sheriff’s Deputies being called. When the deputies arrived, the officer screamed profanities at them, and his supervisor had to be called to the scene. After an investigation and a hearing before the Norridge Board of Fire and Police Commissioners, the officer was fired. The officer argued that cause did not exist to support his firing, because he had had only minor disciplinary action in his long tenure as an officer previous to this incident.

In Lorence v. Norridge Board of Fire and Police Commissioners, another Norridge police officer was fired for his involvement in the altercation started by Officer Gomez. That officer screamed profanities and racial slurs at the Sheriff’s deputies, and was eventually handcuffed and put into the back seat of his supervisor’s squad car. A hearing on whether the officer should be fired was also held before the Board of Police and Fire Commissioners, with the Board finding that cause existed to fire the officer. The officer also argued on appeal that his conduct that night was not enough to terminate him from his long career with the department.

While the two cases stemmed from the same set of circumstances, the officers had different employment histories. Lorence had a long list of performance and conduct issues throughout his employment, while Gomez had only minor discipline. The appellate court, though, in each case found that it could not disturb the findings of the board of fire and police, noting that in Gomez’s case, a single infraction can be cause for discharge. In Lorence’s case, the appellate court again deferred to the findings of the board of fire and police, holding that the officer’s latest infractions, coupled with his disciplinary history supported the decision to discharge. In each case, the employer was able to show that the off duty conduct violated numerous department policies.

Public safety employers should remember not only that off duty misconduct may form the basis of disciplinary action against an employee, but also that courts will give great deference to the reasoned decisions of employers when discharging employees. Courts are reluctant to overturn these decisions if they are supported by policy, such as was the case here. In order to ensure success in defending an employment action stemming from off duty conduct, employers should refer to policies that the employees violated and the harm that it has caused the department.