(CN) – A former government official who “got more than he bargained for” when he accused the town of Cicero, Ill, of firing him to chill his free speech scored a partial victory after the 7th Circuit ruled that the town’s counterclaims for breach of fiduciary will not stand.
Clarence Gross made no headway on his constitutional challenge, but will not have to pay back the $300,000 he earned during his tenure as part of the town’s municipal government.
Gross sued the town for equal protection and free speech violations, claiming he was fired in retaliation for telling his police officer daughter to file a sexual harassment complaint against the town.
The town countersued, claiming Gross hired dozens of unqualified candidates as police officers while he was chairman of the Board of Fire and Police Commissioners
Describing the case as “contentious” and a “bare-knuckle brawl,” Judge John Tinder agreed that Gross was acting on instructions handed down from the town president, Betty Loren-Maltese, and that he was justified in fearing for his job if he failed to follow orders.
“We refuse to hold that a mere concern for one’s continued employment as a public official constitutes a conflict of interest. If that were the case, we are confident that most politicians and public servants would be found liable at some point in their careers,” the judge wrote for the three-judge panel, which threw-out the damages award.
The judge said Gross’ conduct did “not in itself violate any fiduciary duty.”
He added that a “contrary view would wreak havoc on Illinois’s system of public employment -subordinates would have to refuse to act when they subjectively disagreed with the orders of their employers.”
But the court affirmed the district court’s ruling on Gross’ free speech claims.
Gross said that he was fired in part because he met with Loren-Maltese to complain about the sexual harassment of his daughter, Rhonda, by another police officer.
But Tinder noted that Gross never spoke to the town president about “a matter of public concern.”
“We cannot fault a father for seeking to protect his daughter, especially when she claims to have been sexually harassed,” Tinder wrote. “But the law is clear that the First Amendment cannot shield the father’s speech when his motive in speaking is a purely personal one, as Gross’s was here.”
According to Gross, Loren-Maltese told him that his daughter’s sexual harassment complaint had eroded her trust in him and added that Rhonda “was lucky she had a job.”
But the court found that Gross did nothing to encourage officers to file similar charges, and did not seek to “expose a pattern of harassment in the police department.”