BENTON – District judge J. Phil Gilbert granted summary judgment for Randolph County in a former Sheriff's Office employee's First Amendment case alleging he was terminated after making a political speech.
Plaintiff Kenneth M. Kempfer was an employee at the Randolph County Sheriff’s Office from 1994 until 2014 when his employment was terminated.
According to his complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois, Kempfer claims he was fired in retaliation for a political speech he made at a campaign rally in 2014 that was critical of the incoming sheriff Shannon Wolff.
The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that Kempfer's employment was terminated in accordance with an early retirement agreement (ERA) and pursuant to the collective bargaining agreement between the sheriff’s office and the county.
In his Dec. 5 order, Gilbert laid out the standard that Kempfer needed to meet in order to survive the summary judgment motion. Gilbert explained that Kempfer had to prove that the decision to terminate was decided by the political speech, and was not merely a secondary motivation for the decision.
“The plaintiff must prove 'but for' causation, that is, but for the factor in question, the defendant would not have made the decision or taken the action it did,” Gilbert wrote.
Additionally, the non-moving party, Kempfer in this case, need not provide decisive evidence that he was fired “but for” the political speech, but only enough that would allow a reasonable to reach this conclusion, the order states.
The defense presented evidence from the ERA and collective bargaining agreements in an attempt to prove that it relieved Kempfer under different pretenses. Kempfer presented evidence of Wolff mentioning political speech as a driving reason for his termination.
The court decided that Kempfer not had presented enough evidence to create a dispute of material fact. In other words, a reasonable jury could not come to the conclusion that his political speech was the "but for" cause of his termination
"The defendant's, however, have established that Kempfer cannot prove but-for causation.It is clear that, even had Wolff not considered Kempfer's political speech when he made his decision, he would have ultimately taken the same action," Gilbert wrote.