Lawsuit alleges police chief's firing was in retaliation

URBANA — A lawsuit filed in federal court by former Paxton police chief Bob Bane’s attorney alleges that the veteran officer was fired illegally by Mayor Bill Ingold last summer in retaliation for taking the city to court for overtime pay he believed he was owed.

The eight-count complaint, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Urbana by attorney Ron Langacker, alleges that the mayor’s Aug. 29 termination of Bane’s employment violated the Illinois Wage and Hour Act, which prohibits employers from retaliating against an employee for complaining to the employer about unpaid wages.

The lawsuit also alleges the city violated the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Illinois Whistleblower Act and the Illinois State Official and Employee Ethics Act by firing Bane as it did.

“Our feeling is that this is a retaliation cause of action,” Langacker told the Ford County Record on Thursday.

The lawsuit also alleges that the city violated its own ordinances by firing Bane without giving him written notice of the reasons he was being fired. The city also allegedly violated Bane’s constitutional rights by never providing him a pre- or post-termination hearing, the lawsuit said.

Bane’s suit seeks the awarding of damages sufficient to compensate him for any economic losses suffered; attorney fees and costs incurred in filing the complaint; and punitive damages. Also sought are an injunction against the city to “refrain from engaging in any actions with respect to the plaintiff which are prohibited under the terms of the foregoing laws” and an injunction directing the city to reinstate Bane to his former position of employment.

Ingold, who along with all eight Paxton aldermen are named as defendants in the complaint, said Thursday he had no comment on the suit, noting that “this is the first I’ve heard of it.” City Attorney Marc Miller was not immediately available for comment.

Langacker said no hearing had been set yet in federal court. Langacker said a conference date and discovery schedule would be set by the court once the city files an answer to the complaint within the next 60 days.

The mayor has never publicly disclosed why he fired Bane, who had been the city’s police chief since May 2006, saying only that “it was clear a change in leadership was needed.”

The timing of the firing, however, seems to indicate that it may be linked to Bane taking the city, its mayor and its comptroller/treasurer to court over years of unpaid overtime compensation, Langacker said.

“The timing is one of the things you look at in these matters when you talk about retaliations,” Langacker told the Ford County Record. “It happened on the heels of, or right before, (Bane’s) Wage and Hour Act cause of action had been completed.”

About two months before Bane was fired, a judge ruled in Ford County Circuit Court that the city would be required to pay Bane $1,190 in overtime pay he claimed he was owed. The ruling was in connection with a small-claims complaint Bane filed in October 2016, alleging the city owed him $6,848 in overtime pay for city council meetings he attended between May 2006 and August 2015.

Bane requested in July that the ruling be amended to require the city pay him twice what the judge had ordered, but his request was later denied in September.
Bane was fired while his small-claims case was still pending. On Sept. 13 — about two weeks after Bane was fired and about one week before the small-claims complaint was resolved — the city attorney wrote a letter to Langacker in response to Langacker’s request for an explanation for Bane’s firing.

“The correspondence claimed that a reason for Officer Bane’s termination was that he had ‘utilized the fax machine at the police department to submit a Freedom of Information Act request to the city requesting information supporting his small-claims action against the city,’” Langacker’s lawsuit said. “The correspondence further characterized Bane’s request for information to assist in his lawsuit seeking reimbursement for years of unpaid overtime compensation from the city as a means to ‘advance his own personal gain.’”

According to Langacker’s lawsuit, the Sept. 13 letter further claimed that Bane had failed to comply with a directive from the mayor for Bane to provide copies of his employees’ performance evaluations to two aldermen — Bill Wylie and Mike Wilson. In an Aug. 18 memo to Bane, the mayor said that it was his understanding that Bane had not completed any performance evaluations on his officers despite being asked repeatedly to do so by Wylie over a nearly four-month period. He gave him an Aug. 25 deadline to do so, or face “reasonable discipline.”

While alleging that Bane failed to comply with the mayor’s request, the city’s Sept. 13 letter also “acknowledged that the evaluations had in fact been completed” and provided by the deadline, Langacker’s lawsuit noted.

Meanwhile, the same letter made no reference to concerns Bane had expressed about why he was hesitant to provide the requested documents, Langacker said.

“In April of 2017, Alderman Wylie requested that Officer Bane provide him with copies of the officers’ performance evaluations,” the lawsuit said. “Officer Bane was hesitant to provide the evaluations to the alderman because the evaluations contained the officers’ personal and confidential information, and releasing the evaluations to a third party could result in a breach of privacy. Officer Bane was further concerned about the potential conflict of interest with a city alderman having access to confidential evaluations, as well as potential conflicts with the mayor, to whom (Bane) directly reported.

“In July of 2017, Alderman Wylie again requested copies of the evaluations for Officer Bane’s employees. Again, Officer Bane raised concerns about providing copies of the evaluations, citing the need to protect the privacy of his officers.”

After the mayor provided Bane with the memo on Aug. 18, Bane contacted David Nixon of the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police Labor Council, requesting guidance on how to handle the mayor’s directive, the lawsuit said.

“Mr. Nixon stated that to provide a police officer’s confidential employee evaluation to a third party could present a violation of state law and directly contacted the city in an effort to resolve the issue,” the lawsuit said. “On August 21, 2017 — three days after the August 18, 2017, letter from the mayor and after the city and the Illinois FOP Labor Council mutually resolved their concerns regarding the release of confidential information — Officer Bane provided copies of the officer’s evaluations to both the mayor and the alderman, thereby fully complying with the alderman’s request.”

Eight days later — on Aug. 29 — Bane was abruptly fired by the mayor.

“Officer Bane was not given any reason for his termination, nor was he provided with notice of his termination, a statement of the charges against him, or an opportunity to be heard prior to his termination,” the lawsuit said, adding that he also did not receive a due-process pre-termination or post-termination hearing as required by the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

In a response to a FOIA request submitted by the Ford County Record last September, the city said that “there is no written notice of termination of Police Chief Robert Bane’s employment, so that document does not exist,” the lawsuit mentioned.

The lawsuit alleges that the city’s “malicious” and “reckless” actions caused Bane to sustain “the loss of certain economic benefits derived through his position with the city, as well as his subsequent inability to secure employment. Additionally, (Bane) has suffered emotional pain and anguish, damage to his reputation, embarrassment, humiliation, inconvenience and the loss of enjoyment of life.”

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richardson7 wrote on January 11, 2018 at 6:01 pm

Maybe I’m mistaken but my understanding was that the police chief position in Paxton is one of appointment by the current mayor and that the current mayor could rescind that appointment at anytime. I didn’t realize that it was a “hired” position.