Labor & Employment Law Daily County not liable for firing employee in state attorney’s office
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Tuesday, November 12, 2019

County not liable for firing employee in state attorney’s office

By Ronald Miller, J.D.

Local governments are responsible only for “their own illegal acts;” they are not responsible for others’ acts falling outside an official local-government policy.

Because the alleged illegal conduct of firing of an employee from the State’s Attorney Office was directed by an officer of the state, and not the county, the employee failed to state a federal claim against the county, ruled the Seventh Circuit. Here, the appeals court found that under Illinois law, the county lacked authority to direct or control any decisions of the State’s Attorney’s Office’s internal operations. So, the county could not be responsible for establishing the final policy that led to the discharge of the employee (Burger v. County of Macon, November 7, 2019, Kanne, M.).

The employee worked in the State’s Attorney Office for about six years before being fired from her job. During that time, Albert Scott was elected the State’s Attorney for Macon County, and his deputy was Assistant State’s Attorney Nichole Kroncke. According to the employee, Kroncke had the authority to hire and fire employees.

After the employee had been working at the office for about five years, she married. Her husband had been convicted of a felony drug offense in Wyoming in 2009 and had served out his sentence by the time of the marriage in 2015.

The same year that she married, the employee told Scott that she believed that Kroncke had violated state and federal laws, along with employee-handbook provisions, by disclosing confidential information and by discriminating against and harassing employees. Scott relayed the employee’s report to Kroncke. Thereafter, Kroncke started treating the employee poorly: excluding her from meetings and other communications, bypassing her in the chain of command, and calling her demeaning names.

Discharge for association with felon. In February 2016, the employee complained of the mistreatment to Macon County Human Resources. A few months later, on May 19, 2016, the employee was called into a meeting with Scott and Kroncke where her employment was terminated because of her association with her husband, who had been convicted of a crime.

Approximately two years later, the employee filed suit. She based her claims on state law, asserting two counts against Macon County and one count against Scott. A separate claim rested on federal law, 43 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that her discharge violated her federal constitutional rights. Thereafter, the district court granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss. The employee appealed, arguing that she had stated a federal claim against Macon County.

On appeal, the employee argued that her discharge violated her federal rights in one of two ways: either she was fired based on a policy that employees working in certain positions at the State’s Attorney’s Office may not marry someone convicted of a crime—and that policy deprived the employee of her right to intimate association with her husband; or she was fired in retaliation for reporting Kroncke’s misconduct—and that retaliation deprived the employee of her right to engage in activity protected by the First Amendment.

Local-government authority. Here, the Seventh Circuit observed that regardless of whether the employee’s firing violated her rights, it was faced with a critical question: Was the firing an act for which Macon County was responsible?

An act is an official local-government policy when the decision to adopt a particular course of action “is properly made by that government’s authorized decisionmakers.”

Whether an official has local-government policymaking authority is a question of state law. Thus, the appeals court turned to Illinois state law to determine whether the alleged rights-depriving acts were part of a Macon County policy.

The employee’s complaint implies that she was fired because Scott and Kroncke decided to discharge her from the State’s Attorney’s Office. However, the Seventh Circuit has recognized that Illinois State’s Attorneys are state, rather than county, officers. Likewise, the Assistant State’s Attorney was also a state officer, even though a portion of her salary was paid out of the county treasury. Still, whether Kroncke was a state officer did not resolve the issue. This is because even decisions by a state officer may constitute county policy in certain situations.

In this instance, the appeals court concluded that the county could not delegate the relevant authority to the State’s Attorney. Rather, Illinois law gives exclusive control over the internal operations of the State’s Attorney’s Office directly to the State’s Attorney. Moreover, in firing the employee, the Assistant State’s Attorney was acting as a surrogate for the State’s Attorney. Thus, with regard to the employee’s federal law claim asserted against the county, there was no basis for liability.

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