On June 15, 2023, in Michelle Giese v. City of Kankakee, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the City of Kankakee in a federal civil rights lawsuit. Plaintiff, Michelle Giese, a lieutenant in the fire department, alleged she was attacked by another firefighter while responding to a fire at a senior living facility. The City suspended the other firefighter for twenty-four hours without pay, ordered him to complete an anger management course and directed him to avoid working the same shift as Plaintiff for three months. Plaintiff alleged she experienced ongoing physical and mental injuries from the incident, causing her to take leave from work and apply for workers’ compensation. After a six-month leave, Plaintiff returned to work but permanently left her position a short time later.

Plaintiff’s federal lawsuit claimed the City retaliated against her for certain protected activities in violation of Title VII. She also claimed the City condoned aggressive and inappropriate behaviors as part of a “code of silence” that caused her physical and emotional injuries. The lower court granted summary judgment on all claims in favor of the City.  Plaintiff then filed an appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

Fourth Amendment Monell Claim

First, Plaintiff claimed that her fellow firefighter’s conduct constituted an unlawful seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment and that the City should be liable for her injuries. To prevail on a Section 1983 claim against a municipality under a Monell theory, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the municipality acted with deliberate indifference to the plaintiff’s constitutional rights and that the municipality’s action was the “moving force” behind the constitutional violation in question. Here, the Plaintiff claimed the City had a practice of overlooking the misconduct of firefighters that allowed her constitutional rights to be violated. More specifically, Plaintiff contended that the City, despite knowing of the risk of aggression and violent behavior in the fire department, cultivated a “code of silence” that allowed and emboldened Plaintiff’s attacker to violate her Fourth Amendment rights.

After a careful examination of the evidence, the Court found that Plaintiff failed to prove the existence of any “widespread practice” of condoning aggressive behavior within the City’s fire department. In fact, the evidence showed that no City firefighter had ever been violent against another firefighter while on duty, nor was there any evidence to suggest that anyone had anger or drinking problems at work. For these reasons, the Court affirmed summary judgment on Plaintiff’s Monell claim.

Title VII Retaliation Claim

The Court of Appeals also rejected Plaintiff’s retaliation claim under Title VII. To succeed in such a claim, the plaintiff must prove that (1) she engaged in an activity protected by the statute; (2) she suffered an adverse employment action; and (3) there is a causal link between the protected activity and the adverse action. Here, Plaintiff claimed that after she filed her EEOC charge of discrimination on April 5, 2019, the City retaliated against her when it (1) required that she return to work against medical advice, (2) threatened to fire her if she did not return to work by April 15 and (3) failed to inform her supervisor about her light duty assignment. After carefully examining the undisputed evidence, the Court found that Plaintiff had completely failed to prove that she had in fact suffered any adverse or negative employment action despite her contentions.

If you have questions regarding governmental liability for civil rights matters or employment-related claims, contact Tressler attorney, Darcy L. Proctor at dproctor@tresslerllp.com.