U.S. Court of Appeals Affirms Court’s Dismissal of Employee Termination; Cromwell v. City of Momence

The Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed a decision by a federal district court judge in the Central District of Illinois, finding that an employee handbook that was silent as to termination of a nonprobationary employee compared to the section on probationary employees was insufficient to overcome Illinois’ presumption of at-will employment. 

Steven Cromwell was a lieutenant in the Momence Police Department. Cromwell was involved in an incident of alcohol-related misconduct in April 2010. After an investigation, it was determined that Cromwell lied to his superiors and was insubordinate. 

Several months later, Cromwell received a letter from the City Council stating that his charges had been filed with the Police Committee and that a recommendation had  been made to terminate him. The letter also stated that Cromwell was invited to attend a hearing in which he would be given an opportunity to reply to the charges made against him. 

Cromwell and his lawyer came to the hearing, but they were denied a chance to explain Cromwell’s position challenging the charges because the council was in executive session. After that session, the council met as a whole and voted to fire Cromwell.

Cromwell then brought a federal lawsuit against the city and its mayor and several members of the city council under 42 U.S.C. §1983 alleging that his termination violated his due process rights. Cromwell argued that the police department’s rules and regulations gave him a constitutionally protected property interest in continued employment with the police department.

The federal district court rejected his arguments and granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss.The appeal to the court of appeals was taken. The appellate court found that the police regulations specified that an employee was subject to a period of probation for 12-18 months. During that probationary period, the employee would be subject to termination for any reason. The regulations did not contain similar language with reference to nonprobationary police department employees.

Cromwell made the argument that since the regulations were silent on that topic, it gave him a property interest in his continued employment. The court of appeals rejected that argument. The court stated that in Illinois, a person has a property interest in his or her job only where there is a legitimate expectation of continued employment based on a legitimate claim of entitlement. Moss v. Martin. Further, the court of appeals pointed out that in Illinois, employment relations are presumed to be at-will. 

The court found that there was nothing in the regulations that laid out a clear promise of continued employment in the absence of the cause of termination. The panel stated that the regulations’ silence on termination for nonprobationary employees  was not sufficient to constitute a promise for the purposes of establishing a claim of entitlement. 

Because the police department handbook contained no references to tenure or permanent employment, the panel found such past precedent inapplicable.In closing, the court found that in Illinois, something stronger than inference from silence is required to overcome the at-will presumption in employment matters. The federal district court’s decision dismissing the case was affirmed. 

Steven Cromwell v. City of Momence, et al., 12-1541 (April 12, 2013).

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling employment cases for individuals and Illinois businesses for more than 37 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Palos Park, Inverness, Evanston, Chicago (Humboldt Park), Chicago (Wicker Park), Flossmoor, Homewood, Mundelein and Justice, Ill.

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