A U.S. District Court judge, on April 23, threw out what was left of a lawsuit filed against the village of Riverside by four Riverside firefighters who were suspended in the wake of a bar fight in North Riverside in December 2013 involving a Riverside firefighter and an off-duty Cicero police officer.
Late last year, Judge Robert W. Gettleman dismissed allegations by Lt. Thomas Bensfield, Lt. William Ruska, Lt. Ray Williamson, and Firefighter A.J. Ruska that the village’s actions violated their First Amendment right to free political association.
The firefighters alleged they were singled out for discipline because they supported former Fire Chief Kevin Mulligan, who was fired from his job in 2011 and later won a $350,000 legal settlement after suing the village.
Gettleman dismissed the First Amendment complaint in late 2014, but let stand A.J. Ruska’s complaint that the fire department’s code of conduct and standard operating procedures violated the U.S. Constitution because they were overly board and vague.
Riverside Fire Chief Spencer Kimura suspended A.J. Ruska for 21 days because he had violated the department’s code of conduct, which states that firefighters “shall be strictly accountable for disorderly, disgraceful or unlawful conduct or for the commission of any act tending to bring discredit or reflection upon the department while on or off duty.”
Gettleman rejected Ruska’s argument that the code was overbroad. Police and fire departments, he ruled, had “greater latitude in formulating personnel regulations” and that such codes and policies “serve to retain public trust in, ensure the efficiency of, and maintain the discipline of the [Riverside Fire Department], all of which are ‘particular concerns’ of fire departments.”
The judge also ruled the code was not vague and was not required to spell out the types of offenses that might trigger discipline. The language of the code itself, Gettleman ruled, gave plenty of specific direction.
Ruska “asserts that the code and standard operating procedures cannot use phrases that require a firefighter to consider how others may perceive him or have ‘some sort of existential understanding.’ However, many of the words and phrases used in the above examples — such as disrepute, discredit or good of the department — have just such characteristics. Neither the code nor the SOP is vague.”
Kimura said he was relieved by the decision, both for himself, the village and members of the community.
“This is all about the community,” Kimura said. “The citizens we serve is where our focus needs to be.
“I adopted a more widely used code of ethics because the trust is greater between the community, firefighters and police. Anything less than that is not acceptable.”
All of the firefighters disciplined in connection with the 2013 incident remain paid-on-call employees of the Riverside Fire Department.
The firefighters have 30 days to appeal the judge’s ruling.