What started as an alleged problem with the Auto Park feature in a squad car has turned into a lawsuit against the village of River Forest and individually against five village employees — Police Chief James O’Shea, interim Village Administrator Lisa Scheiner, and sergeants Michael Swierczynski, Martin Grill and Justin Labriola.
The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court on Sept. 23. A motion to dismiss was filed by the defendants on Dec. 30, and a response to that motion to dismiss was filed on Feb. 17. No court date has been set.
The plaintiff is Daniel Szczesny, former full-time River Forest police officer, who joined the department in 2013 and resigned in 2019, as a result of what his lawsuit claims were “months of threats, retaliation, and duress.”
Szczesny is suing on four counts: violation of rights to free speech; defamation; intentional interference in his job search after resigning from the village; and failure to comply with the Illinois Personnel Review Act.
He is seeking a jury trial and looking for relief that includes lost wages and benefits; an injunction forcing the village to adopt employment practices and policies in line with the Civil Rights Act; and punitive damages in an amount “allowed by law.”
After the print deadline for this story, Scheiner responded with an official statement on the case from Village President Cathy Adduci. It states: “The Village disputes the plaintiff’s claims and has filed a motion to dismiss the suit on all counts. The Village is confident that it and all defendants will ultimately prevail in this matter.”
Wednesday Journal also communicated with O’Shea, who said any communication about the case should come directly from the village, not from him. Neither Bruce Wisniewski of the Illinois FOP nor the plaintiff responded to voicemails, but the plaintiff’s lawyer, Heidi Karr Sleper, responded with a voicemail that she was available to talk.
According to the lawsuit, prior to any inciting incidents, Szczesny had a strong work history within the village, with exemplary reviews and awards, including being named the River Forest Police Department Officer of the Year twice. O’Shea had even written him a letter of recommendation for a professional award for which he was eligible.
But his good relationship with the village began to sour, according to the lawsuit, in June 2018 when he was elected union president, and tension began to increase between him, O’Shea, and some of the sergeants.
Things came to a head about a year later, when Szczesny noticed issues with one of the squad cars. Car 4, a Dodge Durango, which was cleared for department use on June 18, 2019.
On July 4, 2019, after finding the “auto park” feature of the car problematic, Szczesny sent an email to the department detailing the issue. The car, he said, displayed a message about auto park being engaged when he entered it and put it into drive. He could shift the car into drive, but the car would not move. He ended up turning the car off, leaving it off for about a minute, then restarting it so it would work.
This happened once when he was going out on a call, he said in his department-wide email. Again, he had to turn off the car, wait about a minute, then turn it back on before it would drive.
He recommended taking the car out of service until the issue could be fixed.
“This program could prevent an officer from responding to a hot call, assisting another officer down in a timely manner, or prevent an officer from being able to move the vehicle if being fired upon,” he wrote in his email.
According to the lawsuit, Sergeant Martin Grill, one of the defendants, sent out department-wide emails within the next several days saying the “program manager at Fiat Chrysler” said the program was “working as designed.” He also sent a link to a YouTube video regarding the “Auto Park” software and, according to the lawsuit, “extolling the program’s value in ensuring that officers do not run themselves over with their squad cars.”
During this time, says the lawsuit, more than 13 officers expressed their concerns about Car 4 to Szczesny, calling it a “death trap,” “dangerous,” and a “serious safety risk.”
Grill said he was working on a fix for the issue, but prior to that happening, O’Shea, according to the lawsuit, ordered the afternoon supervisor to drive the car for the next 30 days, saying, in his email, that any officer safety complaints were “some excuses and some misguided false expertise in handling and performance.”
On July 25, according to the lawsuit, O’Shea ordered Szczesny and a corporal to use Car 4 during every shift going forward.
Between July 25 and Aug. 19, “numerous union members” came to Szczesny, stating they were concerned about Car 4, but even more, with O’Shea’s “decision to order mandatory and around the clock use of the vehicle without a solution having been implemented.”
O’Shea told officers if they clicked their seatbelts behind their backs, they would be able to use the car without issue, according to the lawsuit, a directive that “is a direct contradiction of department policy.” He ordered seatbelt extenders to make this work-around easier, according to the lawsuit.
On Aug. 19, 2019, a letter that had been drafted and reviewed by the union and printed on their letterhead was submitted to O’Shea in a sealed envelope slid under his office door. The letter expressed the union’s concern with the way the issues with the car were addressed.
The following day, according to the lawsuit, Grill posted a five-page memo on the union cork board. The memo allegedly “ignored and ridiculed officer complaints, downplayed the issue, failed to address the lack of timely response on the work-around that Defendant O’Shea decided to implement to remedy the car’s problem.” It also allegedly attacked union leadership.
What happened next, according to the lawsuit, was a pattern of retaliatory conduct against Szczesny, including false accusations of poor job performance.
O’Shea demanded that the union retract the letter or internal investigations into the union board would be initiated, according to the lawsuit. He allegedly said that Szczesny would be investigated for lying in the union letter and in police reports and demanded that Szczesny reveal the names of the particular officers who had complained about Car 4, but Szczesny declined to do so, saying he believed that was a matter of employee-union representative privilege.
The lawsuit also states that O’Shea threatened to tell the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, the law school Szczesny was attending, the Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board, and the Illinois Bar Association to say that Szczesny had lied. He also allegedly said that if Szczesny resigned, the other union executive board members would not suffer further discipline.
A member of the union executive board resigned from the board, allegedly telling Szczesny it was because of “his deteriorating quality of life and fear for his job.”
In September, O’Shea threatened to begin investigations into the executive union board unless Szczesny resigned.
Szczesny was offered pay and benefits in exchange for a non-admissions clause where he admitted to no wrong-doing and the village would declare no pending investigations and would confirm nothing would be placed in his personnel file.
At first, Szczesny refused the offer. But on Oct. 1, he finally signed the letter of resignation after what he said were “months of threats, retaliation, and duress.”
Later, however, when he applied for positions in other police departments, he was rejected because of a memo in his personnel file that the lawsuit says “falsely stated that Szczesny had been the subject of three internal investigations” that began in August 2019. The memo was allegedly dated Oct. 2, the day after Szczesny resigned.
Additionally, according to the lawsuit, personnel paperwork stating that he had been placed on administrative leave on Oct. 2, 2019 had been put into his file, although he no longer worked there on that date.
A copy of Szczesny’s personnel file reportedly revealed that there were over 70 documents added to it, of which Szczesny was not aware, documents that the lawsuit claims were not “typically included in personnel files and were not part of the file when [Szczesny] reviewed it on previous occasions” and were “cherry-picked to make Szczesny look bad to any prospective employers.” Previous commendations and awards were not included.
According to the lawsuit, Szczesny was passed up for positions in at least three different police departments.
Village attorneys filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, stating that, among other things, the argument that Szczesny’s right to free speech was infringed isn’t valid because he was speaking not as a private citizen about Car 4, but as an employee, and the statements of public employees within the scope of their job aren’t protected under the First Amendment as that of private citizens.
Although speech as a union president would fall under First Amendment protections, since his first communication about Car 4 came from his regular police email account, it would be considered communication from Szczesny as a public employee and therefore not protected, according to the motion to dismiss.
In a response to the motion to dismiss, Szczesny’s attorney argued that the retaliation against Szczesny began primarily after the union letter was slid under O’Shea’s door. In the letter, he was speaking on behalf of the union and therefore his speech was protected under the First Amendment.
And, responded Szczesny’s attorneys, although his first communication regarding Car 4 came from him as an employee, not on behalf of the union, the defendants were not able to “cite any cases supporting their argument that Plaintiff cannot speak as a Union President because he raised part of the issue almost two months earlier as an officer.”
The defendants also stated that even if Szczesny could establish he was speaking as a citizen and not an employee, it wouldn’t matter because his speech didn’t involve a matter of public concern; rather, it was a discussion of equipment. Further, the defendants refer to a previous court case that states it must be determined whether the purpose of the speech was “to bring wrongdoing to light” or to “further some purely private interest.”
According to the defendants, Szczesny’s complaints about the car “furthered a private interest as an employee of the Village and was not an issue addressing a matter of public concern.”
But Szczesny’s attorneys argue that he was, in fact, speaking of a matter of public concern, since legal precedent has established that there aren’t many matters “of greater concern in a large metropolitan area than police protection and public safety.”
Additionally, said Szczesny’s attorneys, he wasn’t looking out for private interest, as he had nothing to gain from his complaints except his safety and the safety of his fellow officers.