7th Circuit rejects Ill. corrections officer’s political-retaliation claim

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

An Illinois corrections officer who claimed his superiors retaliated against him because of his political leanings lost his claim before a federal appeals court recently.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that Kevin Rousey hadn’t even proved his bosses knew what his political affiliation was when they acted against him.

Rousey, an officer at Big Muddy Correctional Center in Jefferson County, argued that his boss, Assistant Warden Robert Hilliard, engaged in a “pattern of harassment” against him because of his political affiliation. He also claimed that then-acting Warden Jay Merchant harassed him by approving his transfer to a less desirable shift. Rousey contended that Hilliard and Merchant, both Democrats, treated him poorly because he was a Republican.

Rousey sued in federal court in July 2008, alleging that Hilliard instructed other employees to file grievances against him, downgraded his annual evaluation to prevent him from obtaining a bonus, hid his mail and transferred him to a less desirable shift. Rousey claimed that Merchant participated in the decision to transfer him to the less-desirable shift.

The First Amendment protects a public employee’s political affiliation. This means that a government employer generally cannot take an adverse action — such as firing or demotion — against a public employee because he expresses his preference for a particular political party. However, a plaintiff has to show a connection between her political affiliation and the adverse action taken by her bosses.

U.S. District Judge G. Patrick Murphy dismissed Rousey’s claim in February 2010, finding that he had failed to prove that his political activity was known to Hilliard and Merchant. Both defendants had denied any knowledge of Rousey’s political affiliation until he filed his lawsuit.

On July 11, a unanimous three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit agreed with Murphy.

Rousey had argued that there was no other rational explanation for the series of retaliatory acts taken against him other than his political affiliation. Rousey also pointed to the testimony of Illinois state Sen. Gary Forby, a Democratic who said: “Republicans and Democrats beat heads with each other [at Big Muddy], I think they are playing games with each other. … Same way as everyday life.” Rousey argued that Forby’s comments about the political turmoil at the prison proved that Hilliard and Merchant must have known about his political affiliation.

This evidence was not enough for the 7th Circuit judges, who said that Rousey must do more than simply show that he and the defendants are members of different political parties.

“Both defendants deny having any knowledge of Rousey’s political affiliation prior to his filing suit and there is no direct evidence to suggest otherwise,” the appeals court wrote in Rousey v. Hilliard. “Nor has Rousey offered any other specific instances of protected speech activity from which one could infer defendants might have learned of his political affiliation.”

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