Dismissed County Zoning Director Sue Ehardt Gets No Court Relief

“You should not even have come to the courthouse with these alleged claims.”

That’s how one lawyer familiar with Suzanne Ehardt’s discriminatory firing case against McHenry County and various appointed and elected officials characterized the decision. That decision can be found in full here.

Federal Court Judge Philip Reinhard, a former Winnebago County State’s Attorney, found in McHenry County’s favor, plus the following individuals

  • Peter Austin, individually and in his official capacity as McHenry County administrator,
  • Kenneth Koehler, individually and in his official capacity as McHenry County board chairman,
  • John Jung, Jr., individually and in his official capacity as McHenry County vice-chairman,
  • Tina Hill, individually and in her official capacity as McHenry County board member,
  • Barbara Wheeler, individually and in her official capacity as McHenry County board member, and
  • John Kelly, in his official capacity as McHenry County hearing officer.

McHenry County State’s Attorney Lou Bianchi’s assistants who won the case are Sarah B. Jansen, Don Leist and Christina Webb.

Ehardt claimed that the Employee Handbook gave her a property interest in her continued employment.

But the judge found,

“…'[n]othing in this manual establishes contractual rights or obligations.’ The ‘disclaimer’ section further states that both employer and employee have the ‘mutual right to terminate their employment relationship at any time for any reason-with or without cause’ Finally, the disclaimer provides that employees, unless otherwise provided in a written contract, are ‘at-will’ and ‘the employee relationship may be terminated at any time with or without cause.’”

Ehardt also asserted, according to the decision,

“that she had a property interest in her job created by a county ordinance which provides, in pertinent part, that a department head such as plaintiff may not be dismissed unless the liaison committee approves and that any such dismissal must be pursuant to the procedures in the employee handbook.”

But the judge found,

“the ordinance relied on by plaintiff contains no substantive limitations on terminating an employee. The language relied on by plaintiff is merely a matter of procedure.”

Ehardt claimed, again according to the decision,

“a violation of a constitutionally protected liberty interest where the state actor is the employer, a plaintiff would have to show that the defendant called into question her good name, reputation, honor or integrity in a way that makes it virtually impossible for the employee to find new employment in her chosen field.’

But the judge concluded,

“plaintiff’s barebones allegations are insufficient to plead a claim for a denial of a liberty interest. Herreference to “disparaging remarks,” along with the allegation that she has been “ unable to obtain a [similar] position,”are conclusory and too sketchy to provide defendant with adequate notice of her claim.”

An individual claim against John Kelly, in his official capacity as McHenry County hearing officer was filed. The judge characterized it as a claim about “a denial of due process based on the previously alleged property interest in continued employment combined with an alleged ‘sham’ post-deprivation hearing conducted by Kelly.”

Ehardt claimed denial of equal protection under the law.

Judge Reinhart did not agree because

“…plaintiff does not set forth allegations sufficient to state a claim for a violation of equal protection. She merely alleges that other department heads ‘similarly situated’ were ‘alleged’ to have engaged in rude and unprofessional behavior but were not terminated. She does not provide specific factual allegations that touch on the elements of discriminatory effect and intent as required…”

A number of counts in the suit were “based on the allegations that plaintiff had an enforceable employment contract with the County,” the Judge wrote.

“In this case, plaintiff’s claim fails as there is no enforceable employment contract based on the allegations and the materials attached to the complaint,” he concluded.

The next claim the Judge explains is this:

“plaintiff alleges a tortious interference with a business relationship. According to the allegations, plaintiff had a business relationship with the County as an employee and these defendants were aware of, and interfered with, that relationship by causing her to be terminated in violation of the ordinance.”

He disagrees, saying,

“…plaintiff’s claim fails as she has not alleged any third-party interference. Alleging interference by various county board members, who act on behalf of the County, is insufficient. Further, plaintiff has not alleged a prospective business relationship that was prevented from coming to fruition, nor does she have a reasonable expectation of continued employment in light of her at-will employment status.”

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