Huff v. Rock Island Co. Sheriff's Merit Comm'n
IN THE APPELLATE COURT OF ILLINOIS
MICHAEL HUFF, ) Appeal from the Circuit Court
) for the 14th Judicial Circuit,
Plaintiff-Appellant, ) Rock Island County, Illinois
ROCK ISLAND COUNTY SHERIFF'S )
MERIT COMMISSION, CRAIG )
WONDERLICH, Chairman, ROBERT )
ELLISON, and WILLIAM HAAS, ) No. 96--MR--28
Members of the Rock Island )
County Sheriff's Merit )
Commission, MICHAEL GRCHAN, )
Sheriff of Rock Island )
County, Rock Island, Illinois,)
and the COUNTY OF ROCK ISLAND,)
ILLINOIS, ) Honorable
) Joseph F. Beatty
Defendants-Appellees. ) Judge, Presiding
MICHAEL HUFF, ) Appeal from the Circuit Court
) for the 14th Judicial Circuit,
Plaintiff-Appellee, ) Rock Island County, Illinois
ROCK ISLAND COUNTY SHERIFF'S )
MERIT COMMISSION, CRAIG )
WONDERLICH, Chairman; ROBERT )
ELLISON and WILLIAM HAAS, ) No. 96--MR--28
Members of the Rock Island )
County Sheriff's Merit )
Commission; and the COUNTY )
OF ROCK ISLAND, ILLINOIS, )
Defendants-Appellees and )
Separate Appellants, )
MICHAEL GRCHAN, )
Sheriff of Rock Island )
County, Rock Island, Illinois ) Honorable
) John O'Shea
Defendant-Appellant. ) Judge, Presiding
MODIFIED UPON DENIAL OF REHEARING
JUSTICE BRESLIN delivered the opinion of the court:
This case is but one chapter in a lengthy dispute concerning
officer misconduct. The defendant, Rock Island County Sheriff's
Merit Commission (Commission), found the plaintiff, Sergeant
Michael Huff, guilty of neglect of duty and terminated his
employment with the sheriff's department. The trial court upheld
the finding of guilt, but found Huff's dismissal to be unreasonable
and remanded the case to the Commission. The Commission
subsequently reduced the punishment to a demotion and a suspension,
and the trial court affirmed that decision. Huff appeals the
Commission's decision regarding his demotion and suspension (3--97-
-0207). The Sheriff and the Commission appeal the trial court's
decision that the original discharge determination was unreasonable
(3--97--0172). For the reasons which follow, we affirm 3--97--0172
and reverse in part 3--97--0207.
In August of 1995, Sgt. Huff and a fellow sheriff's deputy
responded to a domestic violence call. When they arrived at the
scene, the victim requested that the officers remove the alleged
aggressor from the premises. Sgt. Huff recognized the aggressor to
be a Rock Island County sheriff's correctional officer.
Consequently, he called the state police to handle the dispute.
Sgt. Huff left the scene before the state trooper arrived, leaving
the deputy to wait for the trooper. Later in his shift, Sgt. Huff
contacted the state trooper and thanked him for dealing with the
call. He did not request an incident report.
Section 60/304 of the Domestic Violence Act (Act) requires
that every officer who does not make an arrest must make a police
report of any bona fide allegation of an incident of abuse. 735
ILCS 60/304(b)(1)(West 1996). In addition, the Rock Island County
sheriff's police domestic violence manual mandates that whenever an
officer receives a report of any offense committed between family
members or in a household, an incident report must be prepared
whether or not an arrest was made. Sgt. Huff did not complete a
domestic violence report until several weeks after the incident
when his supervisor, Captain Gould, requested that he do so.
Subsequently, Michael Grchan, the sheriff of Rock Island
County (Sheriff), filed a complaint with the Commission charging
Sgt. Huff with neglect of duties and alleging cause to discipline.
According to the Rock Island County Sheriff Police Rules and
Regulations, the Sheriff has the authority to discipline officers
for police misconduct. In addition, the Sheriff may bring charges
against any officer before the Commission. Conduct that is
detrimental to the discipline and efficiency of the department is
punishable by the Commission by: (1) written reprimand; (2)
reduction in rank, suspension, or both; or (3) discharge.
Prior to the Commission hearing, Sgt. Huff requested the
recusal of the chairman of the Commission, Craig Wonderlich,
claiming his affiliation with the Sheriff s re-election campaign
two years prior was sufficient evidence of bias. He also asked
that Commissioner Robert Ellison be removed because he was
prejudiced based on comments he made during a previous lawsuit in
which he referred to Sgt. Huff as "the thorn in our side." Ellison
responded that he did not remember the previous suit or the
statement. Both members individually considered the request and
refused to step down.
During the hearing, Sgt. Huff admitted committing all charges
but maintained that his actions did not amount to officer
misconduct. After hearing testimony from the parties and several
witnesses, the Commission found Sgt. Huff guilty of misconduct. In
closing, Commissioner Ellison stated he did not think that the
charges of misconduct warranted dismissal. During the aggravation
and mitigation portion of the Commission hearing, the Sheriff
attempted to present a Silvis police enforcement officer as a
witness. Her testimony concerned an alleged incident of domestic
violence involving herself and Sgt. Huff. The Commission excluded
her as a witness, finding the subject matter of her testimony
irrelevant and speculative. The Sheriff also presented letters of
suspension previously issued against Sgt. Huff. While a sergeant,
he was suspended two days for failure to properly supervise and
perform the duties of a sergeant. He was also suspended one day
for inappropriately calling out an investigator. In response, Sgt.
Huff introduced several letters of accommodation and citizen
appreciation he received while an officer in the department. At
the conclusion of the hearing, the Commission terminated Sgt.
Huff's employment with the department.
Sgt. Huff filed suit in the circuit court challenging the
Commission's decision, and the Sheriff filed a counterclaim
alleging that the Commission improperly excluded the Silvis
officer's testimony. The trial court concluded that the
determination of Sgt. Huff's guilt and the exclusion of the
Sheriff's witness were proper. However, the court remanded the
cause and ordered the Commission to consider a lesser penalty.
Under written protest, the Commission reduced the penalty to a
demotion to deputy as of the date Sgt. Huff engaged in the wrongful
conduct. In addition, the Commission imposed a 180 day suspension
without pay as of the date he was found guilty plus a suspension
without pay for the period of time Sgt. Huff was suspended by the
Sheriff prior to the Commission's determination. The trial court
affirmed. Sgt. Huff appeals the Commission s decision ordering his
demotion and suspension (3--97--0207), and both the Commission and
the Sheriff appeal the trial court s order to reduce the penalty
Recusal of Commission Members (3--97--0207)
Under the law of administrative review, an administrative
hearing is required to provide due process. Seul's Inc. v. Liquor
Control Comm n, 240 Ill. App. 3d 828, 608 N.E.2d 530 (1992). A
fundamental principle of due process, applicable to administrative
agencies and commissions, is that no person who has a personal
interest in the subject matter of a suit may sit in judgment on
that case. In re Heirich, 10 Ill. 2d 357, 140 N.E.2d 825 (1956).
A personal interest or bias can be pecuniary, or any other interest
that may have an effect on the impartiality of the decision-maker.
City of Naperville v. Wehrle, 340 Ill. 579, 173 N.E. 165 (1930).
To prove bias, the plaintiff must overcome a presumption of honesty
by showing in the record that the administrative proceedings were
either tainted by dishonesty or contained an unacceptable risk of
bias. Caliendo v. Martin, 250 Ill. App. 3d 409, 620 N.E.2d 1318
Sgt. Huff contends that because Commission chairman Wonderlich
was the chairman of the Sheriff's re-election committee two years
prior to the hearing, Wonderlich was biased and should have recused
Sgt. Huff's argument fails to set forth a genuine claim of
impartiality. The fact that the chairman served as the Sheriff's
campaign manager two years prior to the hearing does not, standing
alone, prove the existence of impropriety. See People v. McLain,
226 Ill. App. 3d 892, 589 N.E.2d 1116 (1992) (plaintiff's attorney
serving as trial judge's previous campaign manager was insufficient
to show bias). These accusations of bias based on a past
relationship, without evidence that a close personal relationship
is on-going, do not demonstrate an unacceptable risk of bias. In
addition, the record does not indicate that Wonderlich decided this
case before objectively reviewing all the evidence. Thus, we find
that Sgt. Huff failed to adequately demonstrate that Commission
chairman Wonderlich was biased.
Sgt. Huff also contends that Commissioner Ellison's bias
against him further tainted the proceedings.
Sgt. Huff attempts to make such a showing by pointing to
Ellison's flippant remark in a prior hearing in which he referred
to Sgt. Huff as "the thorn in our side." However, this statement
was made two years prior to these proceedings. Ellison stated that
he did not even remember the prior lawsuit or the remark until
counsel brought it to his attention. Hence, the record does not
support Sgt. Huff's contention that the Commission's proceedings
were tainted because Commissioner Ellison was biased or prejudiced
against him. Accordingly, we conclude that the Commission did not
deprive Sgt. Huff of any due process rights during the hearing.
Sgt. Huff also asserts that the Commission members individual
determination not to recuse themselves was improper. We disagree.
The Commission hears cases prosecuted by the Sheriff as a
three-member tribunal. Its function is judicial in nature because
it must determine whether or not the Sheriff s charges against an
employee sufficiently warrant discharge. Thus, the Commission
members consider and decide the outcome of each case as judges.
See Mank v. Board of Fire and Police Commissioners, 7 Ill. App. 3d
478, 288 N.E.2d 49 (1972). As such, it is appropriate for each
member to consider his own personal bias or prejudice and determine
for himself whether his recusal is necessary. See 134 Ill. 2d R.
63(C)(1) (a judge should disqualify himself from a proceeding in
which his impartiality may be questioned)(emphasis added).
Accordingly, it was proper for each member to make the
determination personally on whether to recuse from consideration of
Commission's Determination of Guilt (3-97-0207)
Our review of an administrative decision extends to all
questions of law and of fact presented by the record before this
court. 735 ILCS 5/3--110 (West 1996); Granite City Community Unit
School District No. 9 v. Illinois Educational Labor Relations
Board, 279 Ill. App. 3d 439, 664 N.E.2d 1060 (1996). But, an
appellate court may reverse the findings of a civil service
commission only when those findings are contrary to the manifest
weight of the evidence. Walsh v. Board of Fire & Police
Commissioners of Village of Orland Park, 96 Ill. 2d 101, 449 N.E.2d
The Commission found Sgt. Huff guilty of seven counts of
neglect of duty. In light of the fact that Sgt. Huff admitted that
he committed all seven of the incidents of misconduct alleged in
the complaint, this ruling was not against the manifest weight of
Nevertheless, Sgt. Huff claims that his actions did not amount
to misconduct. He claims that the Act only requires an officer to
complete a report in cases of a bona fide incident of abuse and
that the domestic call in August of 1995 was not a bona fide
incident. Sgt. Huff, however, ignores that the county domestic
violence manual requires an incident report for every substantiated
or unsubstantiated domestic incident call. Sgt. Huff's failure to
comply with the manual directive does amount to misconduct.
Accordingly, we affirm the Commission's determination of guilt.
Exclusion of Testimony (3--97--0172)
Section 5/3--111(b) of the Administrative Review Law provides
that evidentiary errors in administrative proceedings will not
constitute grounds for reversal "unless it appears to the court
that such error or failure materially affected the rights of any
party and resulted in substantial injustice to him or her." 735
ILCS 5/3--111(b)(West 1996). Strict rules of evidence do not apply
before an administrative agency. Giampa v. Illinois Civil Service
Comm n, 89 Ill. App. 3d 606, 411 N.E.2d 1110 (1980).
The Sheriff contends that the Commission's decision to exclude
the Silvis officer's testimony materially affected his rights and
constituted reversible error.
The Sheriff alleged that the officer's testimony provided the
necessary link to prove that Sgt. Huff had a propensity to fail to
enforce domestic violence laws. But he did not offer any evidence
to corroborate this allegation. Thus, the correlation between the
officer's testimony and Sgt. Huff's tendency to ignore policy
guidelines was merely speculative. Furthermore, the exclusion did
not result in a substantial injustice to the Sheriff. The Sheriff
would have this court believe that he was prejudiced because the
Commission's initial discharge determination was rejected.
However, on remand the Commission decided to demote and suspend
Sgt. Huff, and this decision was affirmed by the circuit court
without the officer's additional testimony. Thus, it does not
appear that this error materially affected the rights of the
Sheriff. Accordingly, we hold that the exclusion of the Silvis
officer's testimony was not reversible error.
Discharge Determination (3--97--0172)
The appellate court's role is to review the administrative
determination, not the circuit court's decision. Loveland
Management Corp. v. Board of Review of Department of Employment
Sec., 166 Ill. App. 3d 698, 520 N.E.2d 1070 (1988). Thus, we must
determine whether the Commission's findings of fact provided a
sufficient basis for their conclusion that cause for discharge did
exist. See Walsh, 96 Ill. 2d 101, 449 N.E.2d 115. An
administrative decision to discharge an officer demands our
deference and will only be overturned if the discharge was
arbitrary and unreasonable, or unrelated to the requirements of the
service. Launius v. Board of Fire & Police Commissioners of City of
Des Plaines, 151 Ill. 2d 419, 603 N.E.2d 477 (1992).
The Sheriff and the Commission contend that the Commission's
decision to terminate Sgt. Huff was reasonable due to his failure
to comply with the county manual and the Act. They argue that
because the Act provides for damages for neglecting to perform
required duties, Sgt. Huff's failure to file a report inexcusably
jeopardized the department. This argument is misplaced.
Under the Act, a report must be filed only in cases of a bona
fide incident of abuse. 750 ILCS 60/304(b)(West 1996). When Sgt.
Huff arrived at the scene, there was no evidence of violence or
abuse. The victim alleged that the other party struck her on the
head and the other party denied any such action. No report was
filed by the state trooper and no arrest was made. Therefore, Sgt.
Huff was not required to file a report under the Act because the
incident was never verified by the state trooper as a bona fide
incident of domestic violence.
Sgt. Huff's failure to file a report of an incident for which
the state police were assigned does not reasonably require his
termination as an officer of the peace. Huff's record indicates
that on more than one occasion he failed to file requested
documentation as that is the responsibility of a Sargeant. But his
record also contains numerous letters of appreciation regarding his
work both as a deputy and a sergeant, several of which are signed
by the Sheriff. But Furthermore, there is no evidence in the
record which indicates that Sgt. Huff can no longer adequately
fulfill his duties as a patrol or deputy police officer. While
Sgt. Huff's inability to complete ministerial tasks demonstrates
that he should no longer serve the county as a sergeant, it is not
of such a grievous nature as to reasonably allow for his
termination. Accordingly, we hold that the Commission's decision
to discharge Sgt. Huff was arbitrary and unreasonable.
Demotion and Suspension (3--97--0207)
A county and its elected sheriff have broad discretion in
supervising the police force, but they may not act in an arbitrary
manner or in bad faith. Martin v. Matthys, 149 Ill. App. 3d 800,
501 N.E.2d 286 (1986). It is well established that a court
reviewing an agency's decision is limited in its review and cannot
substitute its judgment for that of an agency. Jones v. Peoria
County Sheriff's Merit Comm n, 249 Ill. App. 3d 833, 619 N.E.2d 830
Sgt. Huff's demotion was related to the needs of the service
of Rock Island County. Sgt. Huff was a supervisor of the police
department, and on the night in question he was the commanding
officer. As the commanding officer he was responsible for
implementing policy guidelines and directing assigned personnel.
His display of a lack of assertiveness and his example of failing
to complete reports can be harmful to the prestige and efficiency
of the department. Thus, a demotion to deputy status was not
arbitrary or unreasonable.
Sgt. Huff also argues that the 216 day suspension is violative
of the conditions set forth in section 3--8014 of the Sheriff's
Merit System Law.
Section 3--8014 of the Sheriff s Merit System Law states, in
"*** Upon filing of such a petition, the sheriff may
suspend the certified person pending the decision of the
Commission on the charges.
If the charges against the accused person are
established, the Commission shall make a finding of
guilty and order either removal, demotion, loss of
seniority, suspension for a period of not more than 180
days, or such other disciplinary punishment as may be
prescribed by the rules and regulations of the Commission
which, in the opinion of the members thereof, the offense
justifies." 55 ILCS 5/3--8014 (West 1996).
The task of statutory construction is to ascertain and give
effect to the intent of the legislature. People v. Scharlau, 141
Ill. 2d 180, 565 N.E.2d 1319 (1990). When the intention of the
legislature is clearly expressed, the plain meaning of the statute
must be given effect. City of Chicago v. Strauss, 128 Ill. App. 3d
193, 470 N.E.2d 563 (1984).
Sgt. Huff reads the words "not more than 180 days" as the
maximum period allowed for a suspension without pay. This
interpretation fails to recognize the statute's plain language.
The statute provides for two possible suspensions: one implemented
by the Sheriff pending the Commission hearing, and another ordered
by the Commission as prescribed under the rules and regulations of
the department. Thus, the 216 day suspension was not unlawful.
Sgt. Huff also contends that the discipline imposed, combining
both a demotion and a suspension, is not authorized by law.
Under the terms of section 3--8014, the legislature delegated
the determination of disciplinary punishment to each county
Commission. See 55 ILCS 5/3--8014 (West 1996). The Rock Island
County sheriff's department rules and regulations provide that the
Commission may impose a penalty for conduct that is detrimental to
the discipline and efficiency of the department. The penalty for
a first time offense may be a reduction in rank, suspension or
both, whichever the offense justifies. Rock Island County Sheriff's
Police Rules and Regulations, Merit Commission Offense and
Penalties, 133 (1993). Accordingly, we hold that the imposition of
a demotion and a suspension is authorized by the rules and
regulations of the sheriff's department. See Rock Island County
Sheriff's Police Rules and Regulations, ch. 25.2 (1993).
Finally, Sgt. Huff contends that the Commission's decision to
apply the demotion to the date of his wrongful conduct was
erroneous. We agree.
The Commission is a creature of statute and may exercise only
those powers directly provided by statute. Greco v. McHenry County
Sheriff's Department Merit Commission, 267 Ill. App. 3d 303, 642
N.E.2d 177 (1994). It does not have the power to act beyond the
scope of the Sheriff s Merit System Law, and any rule of the
Commission which conflicts with this statute is invalid. People ex
rel. Kilquist v. Brown, 203 Ill. App. 3d 957, 561 N.E.2d 234
The plain language of section 3--8014 of the Sheriff s Merit
System Law does not allow the Commission to order disciplinary
punishment prior to the date it makes a finding of guilt. Here,
the Commission entered its determination of guilt on November 22,
1995. Thus, the retroactive demotion ordered by the Commission
which dated back to August 1995 was unlawful and erroneous.
Accordingly, we hold that the demotion and the 216 day suspension
are reasonable and lawful; however, the retroactive demotion is
Based on the above discussion we hold that: (1) the evidence
does not support Sgt. Huff's contention that the Commission members
were prejudiced against him, and their self-determination of
recusal was appropriate; (2) the Commission s finding of guilt was
not against the manifest weight of the evidence; (3) the Commission
did not abuse its discretion by excluding the Silvis officer s
testimony; (4) the Commission s decision to discharge Sgt. Huff was
unreasonable and arbitrary; and (5) the Commission s order
implementing a retroactive demotion was unlawful.
For the foregoing reasons, the judgment of the circuit court
of Rock Island County is affirmed in 3--97--0172, and reversed in
part in 3--97--0207.
No. 3--97--0172 Affirmed.
No. 3--97--0207 Reversed in part.
McCUSKEY, P.J., and HOMER, J., concurring.