Intention To Run Against Sheriff Protected By First Amendment

The Kane County, Illinois Sheriff’s Office hired Steven Yahnke in 1986, and he worked as a deputy sheriff for more than 20 years, eventually holding the rank of sergeant. The position of sheriff is an elected post in Kane County, and in 2006, then-Sheriff Kenneth Ramsey opted to retire rather than run for reelection. Deputy Sheriff Patrick Perez decided to run for the post, and Yahnke also contemplated entering the race. At the time, Yahnke told several people about his intention to run and spoke to a number of people about becoming his campaign manager and raising funds. Eventually, Yahnke decided not to run for the office, and Perez, a Democrat, defeated Republican Kevin Williams, another Deputy Sheriff whom Yahnke had supported.

Perez took over the post in December 2006. Earlier that year, Sheriff Ramsey had approved Yahnke’s request to engage in secondary employment as the part-time Police Chief of the Village of Maple Park. In June 2007, after Perez took office, Yahnke was injured while working as a Deputy Sheriff and began receiving disability benefits. In July 2007, Perez advised Yahnke that his secondary employment was suspended until he could return to work in the Sheriff’s Office. In August 2007, Yahnke hosted a party at his home attended by almost all of the Maple Park police officers. At that event, Yahnke openly discussed a plan to run for the Sheriff’s position in 2010, the next election cycle.

Perez eventually terminated Yahnke, citing his belief that Yahnke had continued his secondary employment with Maple Park after being ordered to stop doing so. Yahnke then sued Kane County and Perez, asserting that his termination was in retaliation for exercising his First Amendment rights, and that he had been terminated because of his political affiliation and because the Sheriff believed that Yahnke would oppose him in an election.

The federal Seventh Circuit allowed Yahnke’s lawsuit to proceed. The Court found that “all Yahnke need do at this stage of the proceedings is demonstrate a genuine issue of material fact on the Sheriff’s intent in firing him. Yahnke demonstrates this by citing the deposition of the Undersheriff. The Undersheriff reported to the Sheriff that an investigator had discovered that Yahnke was teaching during the period of time that he was prohibited from engaging in secondary employment. The Undersheriff asked whether the Sheriff wanted to ‘give him a letter, time off or whatever,’ ostensibly referring to a written reprimand or a suspension, both of which were options under the progressive discipline system of the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

“The Sheriff replied, ‘I’m not giving him any time off, I’m firing him. He thinks he’s going to run for Sheriff against me some day.’ A finder of fact crediting Ziman’s version of the conversation could easily find that the Sheriff fired Yahnke because of his political ambitions and his political opposition to the Sheriff, a motive for the termination that is impermissible under the First Amendment. Construing that conversation in favor of Yahnke, it is clear that, even if Yahnke had violated department rules, lesser forms of discipline were available and were suggested as appropriate by the Undersheriff. The finder of fact could conclude that Perez rejected these lesser sanctions in favor of termination because Yahnke expressed a desire to run against the Sheriff, and that the proffered reasons were not the actual motivation for the discharge.”

The Court remanded the case to the lower court for a trial.

Yahnke v. Kane County, Illinois, 2016 WL 3003742 (7th Cir. 2016).