Thomas Brown, a sergeant in the Cook County, Illinois Sheriff’s Office, was passed over for promotion to lieutenant. Brown sued, contending that he was passed over because he was a Republican, and because he did not contribute to the campaign of the then-Sheriff, Democrat Michael Sheahan.
The federal Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals turned away Brown’s suit. In an opinion penned by Judge Richard Posner, widely regarded as one of the best and most innovative writers on the federal bench, the Court found that Brown had not submitted adequate evidence to even raise a prima facie case that he was retaliated against because of his political beliefs.
The Court began with the observation that the evidence clearly failed to establish that contributors to Sheahan’s campaign fared better in the promotional process: “For two years, beginning in 2003 and ending a few months before his voluntary retirement in 2005 (the year before Sheahan retired as Sheriff), Brown was on a list of 16 police officers eligible to be promoted to lieutenant. Five were promoted during that two-year period; 11 including Brown were not. Of the five promoted, three had contributed to Sheahan’s campaign fund and two had not. Of the 11 denied promotions, four had contributed to the fund and seven (including Brown) had not. The average contribution of the three applicants who contributed and were promoted was $557; the average contribution of the four who contributed but were not promoted was $595 – as a group the heavier contributors were treated worse! Brown concedes that he had not been asked to contribute and does not allege (and indeed disclaims) that he was told he had to contribute money to Sheahan’s campaign fund or otherwise assist in Sheahan’s campaign if he wanted to be promoted.”
Beyond this, the Court observed that “Much of the evidence that Brown tendered in the district court was irrelevant, such as that another senior staff member, when Brown asked him about being promoted to lieutenant, told him ‘call your clout.’ Brown could of course testify that the officer really did say that to him, and we are certainly happy to learn that bit of Chicago argot, previously unfamiliar to us. But all that ‘clout’ means in the expression ‘call your clout’ is ‘some person of influence who will back your candidacy.’ The ‘clout’ need not be a Democratic politician; he or she could be a relative of Sheahan, or someone for whom Sheahan might have wanted to work after retiring as Sheriff, or Sheahan’s pastor, or for that matter Bo Derek, who if indeed instrumental in persuading the Illinois legislature to close down Illinois’s only horse slaughterhouse, might be able to persuade the Sheriff of Cook County to promote a sergeant to lieutenant.
“Brown testified that one of the officers promoted ahead of him was promoted only after he ‘called his clout,’ but the ‘clout’ in question was the officer’s former commander, who as far as it appears was willing to support his former subordinate’s candidacy because the subordinate had done a good job working for him. That wouldn’t even be ‘clout’ in its usual pejorative sense; but all that matters is that it wouldn’t be political clout. Another officer was promoted ahead of Brown because, Brown alleges, Sheahan knew the man and had a high opinion of him, and whether that high opinion was justified is likewise irrelevant to this litigation, as there is no indication that it was because of the officer’s politics.”
Brown v. County of Cook, 2011 WL 5041712 (7th Cir. 2011).
The article appears in our January 2012 issue.