Police Chief Has Property Right To Job

Ken Thomason was the Chief for the City of St. Elmo, Illinois Police Department from February 1993 until November 2009. Shortly after Larry Tish was elected mayor in the spring of 2009, he met with Thomason and made clear and certain promises to Thomason of continued employment as Chief of Police.

Things turned, however. The City terminated Thomason, and in a lawsuit filed later, Thomason alleged that “at a meeting held on November 12, 2009, Tish provided the City’s aldermen with false, patently dishonest and pretextual reasons for terminating Thomason’s employment.”

Thomason’s lawsuit contended that he had a property right to his job as chief, and that his termination violated his rights to procedural due process. The City responded by claiming that Thomason was an “at-will” employee who had no property right.

A federal trial court refused to dismiss Thomason’s lawsuit. The Court found that while Illinois law generally presumes that police chiefs are “at-will” employees, the City had enacted an ordinance which changed that presumption. The ordinance provides: “The Mayor shall have the power to appoint all officers of the City whose election is not provided for by statute or Ordinance with the approval of the Board of Aldermen and to remove the same for cause, in the manner prescribed by Statute.”

The Court found that “the plain meaning of the ordinance is that the Mayor can remove appointed City officers for cause. The Court cannot read the clause ‘for cause’ out of the ordinance, nor can it read into the ordinance ‘without cause.’ To render ‘for cause’ mere surplusage contravenes the interpretive canon that all words in a statute should, if possible, be given effect.

“For Thomason to have a constitutionally protected property right in continued employment as the police chief, he had to have a legitimate claim of entitlement to continue in the job. In order to create a property interest, a statute or ordinance must provide some substantive criteria limiting the state’s discretion, as for instance in a requirement that employees can only be fired for cause. This is precisely the case before the Court. The City’s ordinance provides that the Mayor could only fire Thomason ‘for cause.’ As a result, Thomason had a constitutionally protected right in continued employment as the Police Chief.”

Thomason v. City of St. Elmo, 2010 WL 4386506 (S.D. Ill. 2010).

This article appears in the January 2011 issue