Chicago Firefighter One Step Closer to Civil Vindication in Police Corruption Case

A Chicago firefighter who was the victim of outrageous police misconduct by a group of corrupt officers that included threats to plant evidence against him and get him fired, has passed an important legal hurtle in his efforts to hold the individual officers responsible. The facts of the case are so outrageous – and the court’s explanation so clear – that it makes sense to rely on US District Court Judge Robert W. Gettleman’s ruling to review what happened:

  • Plaintiff Robert Cook, a fireman with the Chicago Fire Department, sued defendants the City of Chicago, and police officers Jerome Finnigan, Keith Fuelling, Paul Burg, Jennifer Przybylo, Ken Abels, and John Blake, alleging violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and an indemnification claim pursuant to 745 ILCS 10/9-102.2
  • On May 18, 2002, four Chicago Police Officers—Przybylo, Fuelling, Finnigan, and Burg—forced their way into plaintiff’s home. At least one officer had a gun drawn.
  • Plaintiff, his girlfriend, Denise Gerloski, and her two children, Heather and Thomas, were all present at the house. Once inside, the officers threw plaintiff on the ground, handcuffed him, and slapped him on the head. When plaintiff threatened to call 911, he was beaten further.
  • Przybylo and Finnigan also threatened to take the children away if Gerloski called 911. Although Gerloski did not call, Przybylo isolated the children in the kitchen. Subsequently, Fuelling and Finnigan took plaintiff upstairs and continued to abuse him for about thirty to sixty minutes.
  • Throughout the ordeal, Finnigan and Fuelling repeatedly threatened plaintiff by declaring that they could do what they wanted to him, get him fired, or frame him by planting something in his car.
  • The officers also told plaintiff he would suffer consequences if he did not remain quiet about what had transpired. As the officers were finally leaving plaintiff’s house, they bent him over the front railing and reaffirmed their threats.
  • After the incident, plaintiff filed a complaint.
  • Lieutenant John Blake, who supervised the officers involved in the May 18th incident, assigned Sergeant Ken Abels to investigate plaintiff’s complaint. Blake also supervised Abels throughout the investigation. Abels had regularly supervised Fuelling, Burg, and Przybylo for about two years around the time of the incident.
  • During Abel’s first meeting with plaintiff, who asked that a paper trail be created in case anything happened, Abels called plaintiff a liar.
  • During the next meeting, Abels threatened to get plaintiff fired if he did not drop his complaint and repeated verbatim the threats made by the other officers on May 18th.
  • Abels completed his investigation in June 2002 and found that plaintiff’s allegations were “not sustained” and “unfounded.” Blake approved the report.
  • In May 2006, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office contacted plaintiff as part of an investigation into corrupt officers, including Finnigan. Plaintiff eventually agreed to talk with investigators. The initial meeting occurred in a public parking lot, and Gerloski watched the meeting from a distance. Plaintiff, who was still fearful, brought bail money as a precaution in case he was arrested during the meeting. Plaintiff and Gerloski identified at least three of the officers who were involved in the May 2002 incident. Then, in September 2006, Finnigan and other Chicago police officers were arrested and charged with felonies, including home invasion, armed violence, aggravated kidnapping, narcotics delivery, burglary, and official misconduct.
  • Shortly thereafter, plaintiff hired an attorney. He filed the instant suit on November 1, 2006.

The problem with Cook’s suit was that there was a two-year statute of limitations on his claims. As such he had until May, 2004 to sue, a dealine he missed by over two years. The defendants sought to have Cook’s suit dismissed NOT BECAUSE THEY WERE INNOCENT but because he waited too long to file suit.

The case has been kicking around the federal court system for the past eight years, with a very similar ruling having been handed down by the same judge on April 25, 2008 relative to the city of Chicago’s motion for summary judgment due to the statute of limitations.

Judge Gettleman was confronted with whether or not to grant summary judgment to the corrupt police officers, or allow the case to proceed. Cook’s attorneys argued that the ancient doctrine of equitable estoppel prohibited the defendants from asserting the statute of limitations as a defense.

  • “Equitable estoppel prevents a party from asserting the expiration of the statute of limitations as a defense when that party’s improper conduct has induced the other into failing to file within the statutory period.”
  • To show equitable estoppel is appropriate, a plaintiff must first prove that “the defendant [took] active steps to prevent the plaintiff from suing in time
  • Both on May 18, 2002, and throughout Abels’ investigation, the officers engaged in wrongful conduct that made plaintiff afraid to sue.
  • Fuelling and Finnigan told plaintiff to keep his mouth shut and threatened to get him fired or frame him by planting something in his car. Then, after plaintiff reported the incident, Abels told him to drop his complaint and called him a liar and a drug dealer. Abels also repeated verbatim threats that the officers made on May 18th.
  • Specifically, Abels threatened to get plaintiff fired and to frame him by planting something in his car.
  • Defendants argue that Blake, Burg, and Przybylo cannot be estopped from asserting the statute of limitations because they did not engage in any wrongful conduct. Defendants are simply wrong about Przybylo’s conduct because she threatened to take away the children if Gerloski called 911.
  • The threats made by Finnigan, Fuelling, Przybylo, and Abels prevented plaintiff from filing suit against Blake and Burg because a suit against either would necessarily have included allegations about their colleagues’ actions. As this court previously held, these threats may be sufficient to support the application of equitable estoppel against all defendants.
  • Threatening a victim of police brutally to ensure he does not reveal what transpired is clearly wrongful. … Thus, the court reaffirms its previous finding that threats such as those made by Przybylo, Fuelling, Finnigan, and Abels can constitute sufficiently blameworthy conduct.
  • Here, the officers made express threats that were specifically intended to prevent plaintiff from seeking redress. They beat him, threatened to take away his girlfriend’s children, and warned they would frame him if anyone called 911. The officers made these threats for the sole purpose of ensuring that plaintiff did not call 911 or contact any other source of help. During the subsequent investigation, Abels told plaintiff to drop his complaint and repeated his colleagues’ earlier threats.
  • The court finds that plaintiff has provided sufficient evidence to conclude that a reasonable jury could find that the statute of limitations did not start running until September 8, 2006, when Finnigan was arrested.
  • Because plaintiff filed this suit on November 1, 2006, his suit would therefore be timely and not barred by the statute of limitations. As a result, the court denies defendants’ motion for summary judgment based on the statute of limitations defense.

And with that Judge Gettleman denied the corrupt police officer’s request for summary judgment. Rule ruling was entered September 9, 2014.

Here is a copy of the ruling: Cook v Chicago

Here is a copy of Cook’s original complaint: Cook v Chicago Complaint

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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