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Monday, August 3, 2020

Case Addresses Employee Termination and Political Affiliation

On July 21, 2020, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals decided in Hanson et.al. v. LeVan that the firing of deputy assessors because of their political affiliation violated their First Amendment rights. 

Dawn Hanson and her fellow plaintiffs worked as Deputy Assessors in the Milton Township Assessor’s Office, when Chris LeVan was elected as the new Assessor. Plaintiffs had publicly supported LeVan’s predecessor Bob Earl in his reelection campaign. LeVan won election, and shortly after taking office, he fired plaintiffs, who then sued him, alleging that their termination violated their First Amendment rights.

As a general rule, the First Amendment prohibits the firing of public employees on the basis of their political affiliation. There is an exception to this rule when party affiliation is an appropriate requirement for the position involved. This exception is called the Elrod-Branti exception, named after  two Supreme Court decisions that held that “without political alignment in certain positions, employees occupying those positions could obstruct the implementation of policies presumably sanctioned by the electorate, who placed the current administration in power.” So, when a job description expressly references political affiliation as a requirement for the position, the political affiliation of an employee can be reason for dismissal without violating the First Amendment rights of the employee in question. The Elrod-Branti exception is also called the policymaking exception, because political affiliation of an employee is only of importance for policymaking positions. 

In defending his decision to terminate plaintiffs, LeVan pointed out that the Illinois Tax Code confirmed that the Deputy Assessor position is one for which political alliance is a valid requirement. Plaintiffs, on the other hand, argued that the Deputy Assessor positions did not give them any policymaking authority, and that they were not authorized to perform any advisory or managerial functions. They argued that their positions involved taking measurements of property and inputting those measurements, along with other collected data, into computer programs and formulas that were set by statutes, regulations, state-issued guidelines, and the County and Township Assessors. They further claimed they had no control or discretion over these formulas and programs. In sum, plaintiffs alleged that because they held low-level positions lacking political discretion and for which political affiliation was not a valid requirement, they could not be terminated for political affiliation.

The district court had denied LeVan's motion to dismiss the case on qualified immunity grounds, and LeVan appealed. The Seventh Circuit agreed with the district court, finding that the Deputy Assessor position was a lower-level position involving no political discretion in performing the assessments. The Court further held that LeVan should have understood that firing the plaintiffs because of their political affiliation violated their First Amendment rights. As a result, LeVan was not entitled to qualified immunity at this stage of the litigation, and the case was remanded back to the district court.

Post Authored by Joyce Jezeer and Julie Tappendorf, Ancel Glink


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