Nekolny v. Painter

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (7th Circuit)
Citation653 F.2d 1164
Docket NumberNo. 80-1731,80-1731
Parties8 Fed. R. Evid. Serv. 1592 Edward NEKOLNY, Patrick Dumas, and Maria L. Dahms, Plaintiffs-Appellees, v. Ann B. PAINTER, Individually and as Supervisor of Lyons Township, Defendant- Appellant.
Decision Date14 August 1981

George C. Pontikes, Foss, Schuman & Drake, Chicago, Ill., for defendant-appellant.

Dan Walker, Jr., Oak Brook, Ill., for plaintiffs-appellees.

Before SWYGERT, * Senior Circuit Judge, and WOOD and CUDAHY, Circuit Judges.

SWYGERT, Senior Circuit Judge.

This appeal involves the First Amendment rights of three Lyons Township employees who were found by a jury to have lost their jobs because they had campaigned for the Township Supervisor's opponent in an election. The defendant-appellant Supervisor alleges as error the district court's allocation of the burden and standard of proof; the directed verdict finding that the Senior Citizens' Coordinator was not a policymaker; the denial of immunity to the defendant in her individual capacity and the denial of qualified immunity; the admission of testimony as to statements made by the defendant's "liaison"; and the award of damages for mental and emotional distress. It is also contended that the verdicts were against the manifest weight of the evidence.

We affirm the judgments of the district court as regards plaintiffs Nekolny and Dahms, except for the damages awarded for mental and emotional distress to all three plaintiffs which are reversed for lack of a sufficient foundation in the record. We also hold that the directed verdict finding plaintiff Dumas not to be a policymaker was error. Accordingly we remand for a determination by the trier of fact according to the standards we have set forth in this opinion.

I

Ann Painter, a Republican and the defendant in this lawsuit, took office as Supervisor of Lyons Township on April 18, 1977. All three plaintiffs were at that time employed by Lyons Township, each having been hired during the term of the previous Supervisor. Plaintiff Edward Nekolny was a bus driver for the Senior Citizens' Bus Service; plaintiff Patrick Dumas was the Senior Citizens' Coordinator, and plaintiff Maria Dahms was a Secretary-Dispatcher. Within six weeks of Painter's incumbency, all three had lost their jobs, although the defendant asserted that Dahms had resigned voluntarily. Each plaintiff had campaigned vigorously for the defendant's opponent, a member of the Bipartisan Party, and against the defendant in the election for Supervisor.

Plaintiffs brought their action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that defendant Painter had violated their constitutional rights to freedom of speech and association under the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution by terminating them or forcing them to resign from their positions with Lyons Township because of their campaign activity on behalf of her political opponent. Defendant took the position that Nekolny was dismissed because of health problems and concern for the safe transporting of senior citizens, that Dumas' position was abolished in keeping with defendant's campaign promise to eliminate the four top-paying appointed positions within the Township government, and that Dahms had voluntarily resigned on being informed that due to a reassessment of program needs, her work load and pay would be decreased. Nekolny and Dahms testified that James Hickey, then defendant's liaison to the Senior Citizens' Bus Service, told them that the defendant wanted to terminate them because they had campaigned against her. Hickey denied making those statements. Although it was not disputed that Painter had made a campaign pledge to abolish four positions including that held by Dumas, it was also clear that after terminating Dumas, Painter named Hickey the new Senior Citizens' Coordinator, albeit at a reduced salary.

A jury trial on the issue of liability resulted in a verdict for the plaintiffs. Damages were assessed by the jury as follows: for Nekolny, $40,000 in lost earnings and fringe benefits, $5,000 for mental and emotional stress and $5,000 for punitive damages; for Dumas, $12,000 in lost earnings and fringe benefits, $13,000 for additional expenses, $2,500 for mental and emotional distress and $5,000 for punitive damages; for Dahms, $17,000 in lost earnings and fringe benefits, $2,500 for emotional and mental distress and $5,000 for punitive damages. This appeal followed.

II

The defendant argues that the trial judge incorrectly allocated the burden of proof when he instructed the jury on the issue of Painter's motive for terminating Nekolny, reducing Dahms' salary, and abolishing Dumas' position. The special interrogatory submitted to the jury was in two parts. It first required a finding that

a motivating factor (in the termination of the respective plaintiff's employment) was the work the plaintiff performed in the campaign of the defendant's opponent and against the defendant. (On this question, the Plaintiff has the burden of proof.)

(emphasis in original.)

The form continued If your answer to question No. 1 is "Yes" then answer question No. 2.

The second question asked whether the defendant would have taken the same action

even if (the plaintiff) had not worked in McCullom's campaign: (On this question, the Defendant has the burden of proof).

(emphasis in original.)

The special interrogatory thus assigned each plaintiff the burden of proving that his or her campaign activities were a motivating factor in Painter's action. If the plaintiff succeeded, the burden of proof shifted to the defendant to prove that the defendant would have taken the same action with regard to the plaintiff's employment though he or she had not campaigned against the defendant.

According to the defendant, the proper allocation would have required proof that the sole reason for the defendant's unfavorable action was the campaign activities on behalf of Painter's opponent. Moreover, in the defendant's view the burden of proof should have rested entirely on the plaintiffs. It is argued that such an allocation was made in Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347, 96 S.Ct. 2673, 49 L.Ed.2d 547 (1976), in which the Supreme Court held that employees of the Cook County Sheriff's office could not be discharged solely because of their partisan political affiliation. In Elrod, however, unlike the instant case, the issue of the motive for the firings was not disputed. There the defendant conceded that the employees were terminated because they were not Democrats. Thus the Court did not confront the issue of allocating the burden of proof on the motivation issue. Instead the question was whether a complaint alleging firings solely for partisan political reasons stated a First Amendment claim, and the Court held that it did. The similarity between our case and Elrod is that in both cases the plaintiffs alleged termination of their employment for political reasons in the context of an election. In our case, however, the defendant hotly contested plaintiffs' allegations that the terminations were political.

Because we are in this case faced with a dispute as to the motive for a termination of employment allegedly for conduct protected by the First Amendment, our case is similar to Mount Healthy City School District Board of Education v. Doyle, 429 U.S. 274, 97 S.Ct. 568, 50 L.Ed.2d 471 (1977). There a non-tenured teacher was not rehired allegedly for exercising his First Amendment rights. In Mount Healthy, the defendant School Board had stated that one of the two reasons for not rehiring the plaintiff was conduct found by the district court to be "clearly protected by the First Amendment." The district court held that because that reason had played a "substantial part" in the Board's decision, the plaintiff was entitled to reinstatement with back pay. The Court of Appeals affirmed. The Supreme Court vacated the judgment and remanded for a determination made according to what it held to be the proper allocation of the burden of proof:

Initially in this case, the burden was properly placed upon respondent to show that his conduct was constitutionally protected and that this conduct was a "substantial factor" or, to put it in other words, that it was a "motivating factor" in the Board's decision not to rehire him. Respondent having carried that burden, however, the District Court should have gone on to determine whether the Board had shown by a preponderance of the evidence that it would have reached the same decision as to respondent's reemployment even in the absence of the protected conduct.

429 U.S. at 287, 97 S.Ct. at 576 (footnote omitted).

The Mount Healthy test was used by the trial judge in the instant case. Each plaintiff had the burden of proving that the protected conduct was a "motivating factor" in the action taken against him before the burden shifted to the defendant to prove that the termination would have occurred even if that plaintiff had not worked for the election of the defendant's opponent. In our view, that allocation was proper.

We must reject the defendant's suggestion that we adopt a "sole motive" test in the case of terminations of employment after a change of administration following an election. To require that the plaintiff prove that the protected conduct was the "sole motive" for his termination would in our view run the risk of not adequately protecting victims of First Amendment violations. One can scarcely imagine an employee about whom an employer could not find some other dissatisfaction apart from that employee's protected conduct. The claim of a public employee who was terminated in fact for protected conduct could too easily be defeated because his employer asserted a convincing but nonmotivating reason for the discharge. The Mount Healthy test allows a defendant to terminate an employee for any legitimate reason, even where, as...

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