Under state and federal law, newly elected officials are granted some discretion in replacing policymaking and confidential positions within the governmental organization. Elrod v Burns, 427 U.S. 347, 96 S.Ct. 2673, 49 L.Ed.2nd 547 (1976).
The recent case of Weiler v Village of Oak Lawn, 2015 WL 1538498 (N.D. IL March 31, 2015) provides a cautionary tale for newly elected officials.
Weiler was terminated by the Village after the city manager proposed eliminating his department. Following the manager’s recommendation, the City council approved a budget eliminating Weiler’s department of Business Operations and his position with the village.
Weiler filed a multi-count complaint in federal court alleging that his position was eliminated because three months earlier he had publicly accused the city manager of race discrimination and he had supported an opposing party’s candidates in the recent municipal election.
The court found that elimination of Weiler’s department was a legislative decision for which the city manager and village had absolute immunity. The court also found that Weiler occupied a confidential position and based on Elrod v Burns, he could be terminated for political reasons.
However the Court found Weiler stated a valid cause of action for retaliation under the Illinois Civil Rights Act. 740 IlCS 23/5. This act mirrors Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act 1964. Retaliatory discharge claims are allowed under Title VI based on employee opposition to race discrimination. In holding that the Illinois Civil Rights Act supports retaliatory discharge claims the court expressly disagreed with a contrary decision by the Illinois Appellate Court in Ill. Native Am. Bar Ass’n v. Univ. of Ill., 368 Ill. App 3d 321, 305 Ill. Dec. 655, 856 N.E.2d 460, (2006).
Public officials are cautioned to consult with their attorney before making decisions involving elimination or replacement of incumbent employees. Routine political appointments and legislative budget decisions may create unintended consequences.