The village of Riverside and its fire chief, Spencer Kimura, on July 28 filed a motion in U.S. District court asking Judge Robert W. Gettleman to dismiss with prejudice a lawsuit filed against them earlier this year by four firefighters, who had been disciplined by Kimura following an altercation involving a Riverside firefighter and an off-duty Cicero police officer in a North Riverside tavern last December.
Three fire lieutenants, Thomas Bensfield, William Ruska and Ray Williamson, along with Firefighter A.J. Ruska, filed an amended lawsuit in June asking not only that the disciplinary action taken against them be rescinded but that the village pay them punitive damages for violating their First Amendment right to free political association.
The three lieutenants were each suspended three days for reportedly failing to discipline a subordinate, while A.J. Ruska was suspended 21 days and given a “last-chance” warning for reportedly violating the department’s code of conduct. None was directly involved in the bar fight.
The firefighters claimed that the chief targeted them, because they are part of a department faction loyal to former Fire Chief Kevin Mulligan, who was fired in 2011.
However, the village’s motion to dismiss states the firefighters have no basis for their First Amendment claim. While not denying that the department fractured into factions, the village and Kimura claim the firefighters were not engaging in “political speech” by aligning with Mulligan.
Rather, according to the motion to dismiss, “this seems to be nothing more than an old rivalry among friends that turned sour.”
As for the firefighters’ demand that their suspensions be overturned, the motion to dismiss claims that the firefighters failed to pursue other remedial actions available to them prior to filing their lawsuit.
While Williamson reportedly met personally with Village Manager Peter Scalera to discuss appealing Kimura’s disciplinary actions, the village’s employee manual outlines the procedure for such appeals.
According to the motion to dismiss, the employee manual expressly states that appeals must be made in writing within 10 days of the disciplinary action. That never happened, according to the July 28 filing.
As a result, the village claims, the firefighters’ failure to enter a written notice of appeal “precludes them from seeking judicial review of the disciplinary actions.”
No date has been set for when Gettleman will rule on the village’s motion to dismiss. The village officially served the firefighters’ attorney with the motion to dismiss and supporting documents for the motion on Aug. 5.