By Bob Uphues
Four Riverside firefighters, disciplined earlier this year for their actions during an incident at a North Riverside tavern in December, are now demanding punitive cash damages from the village, claiming they were specifically targeted by Fire Chief Spencer Kimura because they supported his now-fired predecessor.
Lt. Thomas Bensfield, Lt. William Ruska, Lt. Ray Williamson, and Firefighter A.J. Ruska in April filed suit against Kimura and the village in Cook County Circuit Court, asking a judge to vacate disciplinary measures taken against them and compensating them for lost wages following a Dec. 14, 2013 off-duty incident at a North Riverside tavern.
On July 14, the case was moved to U.S. District court after the firefighters in June filed an amended lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court, claiming that Kimura's disciplinary actions violated their First Amendment rights — that Kimura disciplined them because of "their actual or perceived political association with former Fire Chief Kevin Mulligan."
The amended lawsuit, in addition to reversing the disciplinary measures taken against the firefighters, demands "compensatory damages, attorney's fees, costs of suit and exemplary damages as warranted."
The case has been assigned to federal Judge Robert W. Gettleman.
In March and April, Kimura suspended the three lieutenants for three days each and suspended Firefighter A.J. Ruska for 21 days, giving him a "last chance" warning in the process.
A.J. Ruska was disciplined for violating the department's code of conduct: "behavior unbecoming a Riverside firefighter." The lieutenants were disciplined for failing to "issue discipline to a subordinate."
The subordinate in question, identified in the lawsuit as Firefighter Michael Rerucha, is not a party to the lawsuit.
Rerucha, according to a police report filed in North Riverside following the incident, got into a scuffle with an off-duty Cicero police officer, allegedly punching him in the head. The police officer refused to file charges against Rerucha, according to North Riverside police.
According to the amended lawsuit, the Riverside Fire Department was polarized — with factions supporting either Mulligan or Deputy Chief Matthew Buckley, whose actions eventually led to Mulligan's ouster — prior to the December 2013 incident that led to the firefighters' suspensions.
Rerucha, Bensfield and A.J. Ruska were part of the Mulligan camp, according to the suit, while Williamson and William Ruska were allies of Buckley.
The day after the incident at the tavern, the suit states, Buckley called Williamson to warn him to report the incident to Kimura. That was done, the suit states, to protect Williamson and "provide an avenue for discipline" against Mulligan's friends.
Kimura, according to the suit, disciplined Williamson and William Ruska after they refused to incriminate Rerucha or any of the others, prompting Kimura to determine "the officers were part of the Mulligan faction."
The plaintiffs' attorney, Patrick Walsh, said in April that Rerucha was initially fired by Kimura but later rehired. Village officials would not comment on that aspect of the case.