Suit By Chicago Firefighter Assaulted By Officer To Continue

A Chicago firefighter who claims he was punched by his lieutenant and knocked unconscious at a post-incident review last year, has survived a motion to dismiss his federal court case. John Copeland filed suit last year against Lt. Leonard Johnson and the City of Chicago for a violation of his civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and several state law counts.

The altercation was described by US District Court Judge Robert M. Dow as follows:

  • On or about March 25, 2018, Plaintiff and Lt. Johnson were on the scene of a fire in connection with their duties as firefighters for the Chicago Fire Department.
  • Although Plaintiff was to remain outside the burning building on standby duty, Lt. Johnson ordered Plaintiff to enter the burning building.
  • Plaintiff was required to follow the orders given to him by Lt. Johnson.
  • Following this order by Lt. Johnson, Plaintiff entered the burning building.
  • On or about March 28, 2018, Plaintiff and Lt. Johnson both attended a mandatory meeting at CFD Engine #121 to discuss the March 25, 2018 fire.
  • At the meeting, Capt. Darryl Moore asked Plaintiff to identify his role in the March 25, 2018 fire. Plaintiff responded that he was on standby duty.
  • Capt. Moore then asked Plaintiff why he entered the burning building.
  • Plaintiff explained that he was ordered to enter the burning building by Lt. Johnson.
  • Plaintiff then stated to Capt. Moore: “Maybe your lieutenant didn’t know his role at the fire.”
  • Following this comment, Lt. Johnson confronted Plaintiff and stated: “Since I don’t know my role, make sure you know your role.”
  • Lt. Johnson then punched Plaintiff in the face two times.
  • After Lt. Johnson punched Plaintiff in the face a second time, Plaintiff fell to the ground and lost consciousness after hitting his head.
  • Plaintiff spent six hours in the hospital and suffered injuries to his left eye, lip, head, and back as a result of the actions of Lt. Johnson.

Lt. Johnson was charged with misdemeanor battery. Copeland filed suit in US District Court for the Northern District of Illinois alleging a violation of his 4th Amendment rights (illegal seizure and excessive force), state law battery, respondeat superior,  and a state law claim under 745 ILCS 10/9-102. Last week, Judge Dow concluded that Copeland’s §1983 excessive force allegations against Johnson could continue, but dismissed the §1983 claim against the city. In explaining his decision, Judge Dow stated:

  • “To be liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, [Lt. Johnson] must have acted ‘under color of state law’ to deprive [Plaintiff] of some federally guaranteed right.”
  • “Not every action by a state official or employee is to be deemed as occurring ‘under color’ of state law.”
  • Drawing all inferences in Plaintiff’s favor, which the Court must do at this juncture… the Court concludes that Plaintiff sufficiently alleges that Lt. Johnson was acting under color of state law.
  • Plaintiff alleges that Lt. Johnson punched him in order to discipline Plaintiff.
  • Although Lt. Johnson certainly did not have authority to punch Plaintiff in the face as a disciplinary measure, “an official’s conduct may constitute state action even when the conduct exceeds the official’s grant of authority.”
  • [D]rawing all reasonable inferences in Plaintiff’s favor, the Court concludes that Plaintiff sufficiently has alleged that Lt. Johnson was acting under color of state law.
  • Claims of excessive force generally are analyzed under the Fourth Amendment’s reasonable seizure standard.
  • Plaintiff argues that he was seized for Fourth Amendment purposes because Lt. Johnson was Plaintiff’s supervisor and that they both were required by their employer to be at the meeting where the altercation took place.
  • [T]o the extent that Plaintiff contends that he was seized because he feared adverse employment consequences if he left, Plaintiff cannot proceed on his Section 1983 excessive force claim.
  • Plaintiff also alleges that he was rendered unconscious as a result of being punched by Lt. Johnson.
  • [T]he Seventh Circuit recognized that the use of force by a supervisor could constitute a seizure. This is consistent with cases finding that a seizure occurred where the use of force immobilizes a person.
  • Defendant fails to explain why that allegation is insufficient to establish a seizure as necessary to state a Section 1983 claim for excessive force.
  • Without any argument as to why being rendered unconscious is insufficient to establish a seizure, the Court denies Lt. Johnson’s motion to dismiss Plaintiff’s Section 1983 claim.
  • Defendant [City of Chicago] moves to dismiss Plaintiff’s claim under Monell.
  • “Under Monell, a local governmental entity is liable for damages only if a plaintiff can show that the alleged constitutional violation occurred as a result of an official policy, custom, or practice.”
  • Plaintiff does not contend that any official policy of the City caused the alleged constitutional violation.
  • Still, a plaintiff may establish municipal liability under Monell by showing “a ‘wide-spread practice’ that although not authorized by written law and express policy, is so permanent and well-settled as to constitute a ‘custom or usage’ with the force of law.”
  • Specifically, the complaint identifies the following:
    • A firefighter who was promoted after committing a violent attack of a police officer resulting in a settlement of over $1,000,000.
    • A firefighter who was only placed on leave after repeatedly masturbating in full view of his co-workers at his firehouse.
    • A firefighter who was fired for engaging in sexual acts at a firehouse.
    • A dozen firefighters who were disciplined for allowing that firefighter to engage in sexual acts at a firehouse.
  • According to Plaintiff, this practice or custom has created a culture where firefighters know that they will not be disciplined for misconduct.
  • These allegations are insufficient to establish a pattern and practice.
  • Here, at least two of the examples identified above by Plaintiff indicate that the wrongdoers actually were disciplined. In any event, these isolated incidents are insufficient to establish a practice or custom.
  • Accordingly, the Court grants the City’s motion to dismiss Plaintiff’s Monell claim.

Here is a copy of the ruling.

Here is a copy of the original 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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