A federal judge last month sided with the village of Riverside, largely dismissing a lawsuit brought against Fire Chief Spencer Kimura for disciplining four firefighters after a fight involving a fifth firefighter at a North Riverside tavern in December 2013.
The firefighters sought unspecified monetary damages from the village, claiming Kimura violated their First Amendment rights regarding freedom of political association when he suspended lieutenants Thomas Bensfield, William Ruska and Ray Williamson for three days and Firefighter A.J. Ruska for 21 days.
The lawsuit argued that Kimura assumed all four were friends of former Fire Chief Kevin Mulligan, who was fired in 2011. The department had split into factions prior to the time Mulligan was fired, with some in the department backing him while others backed Matthew Buckley, who resigned as deputy chief under Mulligan but was rehired to that position by Kimura.
The lieutenants were suspended by Kimura for failing to discipline a subordinate after an off-duty incident in North Riverside on Dec. 14, 2013 in which a Riverside firefighter, who was not a party to the lawsuit, allegedly punched an off-duty Cicero police officer.
Firefighter Ruska’s penalty was harsher because, according to Kimura, he had violated the department’s code of conduct. He was also given a “last chance” warning, because of prior disciplinary action.
Judge Robert W. Gettleman on Nov. 12 ruled that the First Amendment was not an issue in the case, because the firefighters’ relationship with Mulligan was not political, but personal. Gettleman stated in his ruling that there were no facts supporting the contention that “political factions” within the fire department were “in any way related to a matter of public concern.”
The firefighters also had complained in the lawsuit that village officials handled the disciplinary process improperly. But Gettleman ruled that the village’s employee manual clearly sets out a process for appealing disciplinary measures, and that the firefighters failed to follow that procedure.
However, Gettleman did not dismiss A.J. Ruska’s allegation that the department’s code of conduct, under which he was disciplined, was “unconstitutionally vague.” That allegation will be examined further in court.
Kimura instituted the code of conduct by the summer of 2012. The code states that firefighters will conduct themselves “in a manner that reflects positively on myself, my department and the fire service in general” and that firefighters “accept responsibility for my actions and for the consequences of my actions.”
The coda also states that firefighters will be held “strictly accountable for disorderly, disgraceful or unlawful conduct or for the commission of any act tending to bring discredit or reflections upon the department while on duty of off duty.”
The language in the Riverside code of conduct mirrors language in the National Firefighter Code of Ethics. A.J. Ruska signed the National Firefighter Code of Ethics Pledge for the Riverside Fire Department on Aug. 31, 2012.
In a court filing dated Dec. 5, Kimura denies that he “prosecuted [Firefighter] Ruska under an unconstitutionally vague law.” The court filing also includes documents related to the disciplinary process. Initially, Kimura recommended suspending A.J. Ruska for 30 days. He also initially recommended one-day suspensions for William Ruska and Bensfield and a three-day suspension for Williamson. He also recommended firing the firefighter directly involved in the bar fight.
The case has been continued to a status hearing on Jan. 7, 2015.