Fired Gaming Agent May Have Case for Retaliation

     CHICAGO (CN) – The Illinois Gaming Board must face claims that it fired a man for helping a friend pursue corruption charges against it, the 7th Circuit ruled.
     John Gnutek’s corruption claims against the board stemmed from its 2005 selection of Mark Stevens, a master sergeant with the Illinois State Police, for the position of enforcement operations adviser.
     Gnutek, a member of the board’s enforcement division who had previously filed a gender bias suit against it, claimed that the board’s decision to pass him over for the promotion had been retaliatory. Gnutek later added claims under the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. He alleged corruption throughout the board involving businessman William Cellini and former Illinois State Police Director Larry Trent.
     Thomas Hobgood, a friend of Gnutek’s who worked as a senior special agent for the investigations division, helped organize and research the case. Hobgood provided Gnutek with a “memorandum of record” reflecting a conversation Hobgood had with Luis Tigera, deputy administrator of the enforcement division, about hiring processes.
     When Gaming Board administrators reviewed Gnutek’s initial disclosures, they discovered Hobgood’s memorandum. Believing that Hobgood might have recorded Tigera without her consent, they asked police to investigate whether he had violated Illinois’ eavesdropping statute. Police later informed the board that “the investigation did not uncover any evidence” of illegal activity.
     Nonetheless, the board began its own investigation led by Luke Hartigan, chief investigator for the revenue department’s internal affairs division. Hartigan searched Hobgood’s office and requested the agent’s telephone records to determine how frequently he contacted Gnutek.
     The board then charged Hobgood with three counts of misconduct, even though the Labor Relations Board advised that one charge be removed, and it fired Hobgood.
     The Illinois Civil Service Commission later ordered Hobgood’s reinstatement, ruling that the Gaming Board had proven only part of the first charge – that Hobgood had improperly possessed a file about one of the key players in Gnutek’s RICO case. Hobgood’s termination was reduced to a six-month suspension.
     Hobgood then filed suit, alleging retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and First Amendment.
     Though U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer granted the board summary judgment, a three-judge appellate panel reversed Tuesday.
     “The record here presents genuine issues of fact concerning the Gaming Board’s and its employees’ motives for investigating, disciplining, and terminating Hobgood,” Judge David Hamilton wrote for the panel.
     Hobgood’s complaint created a “convincing mosaic” of circumstantial evidence sufficient to survive summary judgment, according to the 29-page opinion.
     “When viewed as a comprehensive whole, Hobgood’s evidence easily supports a reasonable inference that he was the victim of a retaliatory witch hunt,” Hamilton wrote.
     Specifically, Hobgood presented evidence that, the Gaming Board’s general counsel instructed Hartigan that the board “wants discharge to be considered as the first option.”
     “This extraordinary departure from policy and custom could, if believed by the jury, support adverse inferences about the defendants’ motives,” Hamilton wrote.
     Other policy deviations that Hobgood alleged cast similar doubt on the Gaming Board’s motives. Hartigan failed to complete a case initiation form and obtained copies of Gnutek’s complaints. In addition the Gaming Board’s charges against Hobgood were drafted by a single member of the Labor Relations Board, rather than its whole body. Finally, the Gaming Board ignored the Labor Relations Board’s recommendation to drop a charge that the Illinois Civil Service Commission later deemed unsubstantiated.
     “It remains to be seen whether Hobgood can prove his case at trial,” Hamilton wrote. “The defendants paint a very different picture of the relevant facts and of Hobgood’s character. But the evidence Hobgood presented in opposing summary judgment is sufficient to present genuine issues of material fact on both his Title VII and First Amendment retaliation claims that must be resolved by a jury.”
     The 7th Circuit also noted that all individual defendants are not entitled to qualified immunity because “it was clearly established at the time of the Gaming Board’s actions that the First Amendment prohibited investigating and then suspending and terminating a public employee because he had helped another employee pursue a lawsuit aimed at uncovering and proving public corruption.”

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