Three veteran River Forest police officers who claim they were passed over for notable promotions based on age and sex discrimination have been given the opportunity to have their case heard in federal court.
Federal Judge Joan B. Gottschall delivered a long awaited ruling last Wednesday in which she denied seven of 10 motions made by the village government for summary judgment in a lawsuit filed by the three officers. Lieutenants Craig Rutz and Bruce Higgins and Sergeant Thomas Ludvik had filed the suit in March, 2003, alleging age and gender discrimination, as well as retaliation by the department for their having filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The ruling by Gottschall, which lets stand most of the age and gender discrimination counts, as well as two retaliation counts, effectively clears the way for the case to proceed to trial. Rutz's attorney, David Thollander of Downers Grove, said that he expects that trial to begin by January. The Village of River Forest has consistently declined to comment on ongoing court proceedings, and representatives of the village's law firm, Chilton, Yambert, Porter & Young were unavailable for comment Tuesday morning.
Thollander, however, was happy to talk with the media, saying Monday of the judge's ruling, "She's given us a great deal of wind in our sails." While expressing disappointment at the dismissal of count one, Thollander said he was unfazed by the three counts that were dismissed.
"The fact that summary judgment was granted doesn't dissuade or disappoint us," he said. "It doesn't impact the case regarding how we will present it or what we believe will be the ultimate outcome."
Lawyers from Chilton, Yambert, Porter & Young filed a motion for summary judgment?#34;in effect dismissal?#34;with Gottschall last September 10. The judge's language in denying defense motions of the seven remaining counts could only encourage plaintiffs Higgins, Rutz and Ludvik.
Thollander claimed there was an element of foreshadowing in the judge's opinion. Commenting on the village's defense, Gottschall wrote, "At the outset, the court notes that the village's papers are deficient in a number of respects, needlessly complicating resolution of its motion (and perhaps this case.) First, the village fails to provide the court with a coherent overview of the facts relevant to the motion."
The judge's displeasure at that lack of clarity was clearly evident when she later quoted another court's commentary, which noted, "Judges are not like pigs, hunting for truffles buried in the record."
Thollander said that he believes there's a simple reason the village's lawyers didn't respond in a strong manner.
"The reason they didn't do it is they can't," he said. "(Their positions are) not only unsupported by proper citation, they don't exist," he said.
Referring to the charges of age discrimination in counts four and nine, and gender discrimination in counts six and 10, Gottschall wrote that Rutz and Ludvik had established prima facie cases, and that River Forest had failed to adequately respond to those charges.
"The village insists that (current Deputy Chief Kendra) Sullivan was chosen because she was 'best suited for the job,' but? is completely silent as to any of Sullivan's qualifications," wrote Gottschall. "Slight though the village's burden is, it has not been met here, so resolution of this issue must wait until trial."
Later, addressing counts six and 10, Gottschall wrote that Rutz had effectively presented the court with a litany of reasons he should be considered better qualified than Sullivan. The village, the judge wrote, "is certainly entitled to consider factors beyond seniority when promoting its employees." However, Gottschall wrote, the village had not adequately responded to those charges either.
"?While the village may have colorable reasons for selecting Sullivan, they are unsupported by proper citation to the record," she wrote in denying the defense motion for summary judgment.
"I think the judge is saying 'You've got a problem here," said Thollander. "What the court is insinuating is that, 'you had these officers who were far superior to (another) candidate, and you're saying (that the other) candidate is still somehow superior."
Gottschall appeared to support the plaintiff's argument, writing "All things being equal, it is the irrational employer that forgoes candidates with superior training, experience and track records of promotion in favor of a candidate who does not possess those attributes."
Saying that it's been a long wait, Thollander said he's relieved to have what he termed "a green light" to proceed with preparations for trial. It's a process he said he's looking forward to.
"I think at this stage this will proceed to trial, and that the village will be greatly disappointed at the outcome," said Thollander.
The suit is one of three that have been filed by the trio of River Forest officers. The other two await resolution.