Attorneys for the village of River Forest informed a Federal magistrate last Wednesday that they are no longer interested in continuing settlement negotiations in a discrimination lawsuit filed by three River Forest police officers.
In March of 2003, Lt. Bruce Higgins, Lt. Craig Rutz and Sgt. Thomas Ludvik filed a 10-count lawsuit in U.S. District Court, alleging age and gender discrimination in regards to their not being selected to fill two newly created deputy chief positions on the force. On Feb. 22 of this year Federal Judge Joan B. Gottschall referred the case to Federal Magistrate Michael T. Mason for a settlement conference. However, on April 6, attorneys from Chilton, Yambert, Porter & Coghlan notified Judge Mason that the village was no longer willing to settle, and a hearing scheduled for April 8 was cancelled.
"All matters relating to the referral of this case having been resolved, the referral is closed and the case is returned to the assigned judge," wrote Mason.
The case now goes back to Judge Joan B. Gottschall, who is expected to rule sometime in the next month to six weeks on a motion made by the village late last year for summary judgment to dismiss the case.
Asked for comment Monday night, Village President Frank Paris said comment on the case, if any, should come from the village's attorney. However, Village Attorney Jonathan Gilbert did not return repeated calls.
The three officers' attorney, David Thollander, said Tuesday that he not only doesn't expect the judge to dismiss the case, he thinks his clients' case has grown stronger in the wake of two court rulings within the past month.
A U.S. Supreme Court ruling three weeks ago made it easier for employees to recover damages for age discrimination under the U.S. Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA). The 5-3 ruling, Smith v. City of Jackson, Mississippi, states that under the ADEA, an employee doesn't have to prove that the employer's age discrimination was intentional, only that a supposedly neutral employment practice or policy had a "disparate impact" on employees 40 years of age and older.
Thollander agrees with legal experts who believe that the high court decision will likely result in an increase in the number of age discrimination class actions and individual lawsuits, saying that "quite frankly, the ruling lessens the standard."
The Supreme Court decision does allow employers to get such claims dismissed prior to trial through summary judgments if a defendant can demonstrate that their actions were based on reasonable factors other than age. However Thollander said Tuesday that he doesn't believe River Forest will be able to show any such reasonable alternative factor in their case.
"I don't believe they're going to prevail," he said. "It's clear the [deputy chief selection] process was geared toward selecting younger officers, as well as toward gender. There's too many questions of fact as to why these individuals were selected."
"Scoring didn't mean anything," Thollander said of the River Forest selection process. "It was a farce, a sham."
Previous comments made by various village officials, said Thollander, indicate a preference for youth.
"Terms like 'empower younger officers,' and 'modernize the department,'" Thollander noted.
Thollander also said that he has "four or five people" who will testify, if needed, to comments he said Paris made at a recent River Forest Service Club meeting. Paris, he alleges, told club members that "the problems with the police department will be resolved when the dinosaurs leave."
Thollander said he is also encouraged by a recent ruling in a federal suit filed by Milwaukee police officers alleging bias in that department's captains selection process. Known criteria and standards, he said, were ignored in that case, and the City of Milwaukee "got walloped," and was ordered to pay a $1.2-million judgement (They are expected to appeal).
River Forest, said Thollander, will likely find itself in a similar situation if they go to trial, which he said he expects to happen sometime by mid- to late-summer.