Shooting Threat, Knife Possession Justified Firing County Worker

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By Lawrence E. Dubé

A transportation supervisor for Cook County, Ill., couldn’t show his due process rights were violated after he was fired for possessing a knife at work and later making a threat to “shoot up the workplace.”

Michael Catinella made allegations “filled with intrigue” that Cook County, Ill., fired him in violation of the U.S. Constitution, but he never showed the “alleged whirlwind of unfairness” interfered with his constitutional rights, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled Jan. 31, upholding a lower court ruling.

The decision illustrates that public employees can’t challenge employment terminations merely by invoking the language of the Constitution and complaining the government acted unfairly. The employee must identify and articulate how a personnel action violated the worker’s constitutional rights.

Catinella vigorously disputed the charges, but Judge Diane S. Sykes said his denials were not sufficient to show that the county violated his due process rights under the Constitution.

Sykes said Catinella’s lawsuit against the county was “disjointed” at best and a trial court properly dismissed the case after giving the former employee two chances to explain his claim against the county.

Tumult, but No Rights Violation

Catinella’ troubles began when the county launched an investigation into the awarding of a fuel pump contract, according to Sykes’ ruling. Catinella, a supervisor, was questioned with his attorney present. The investigators asked Catinella in the middle of his interview if he was carrying a weapon. Catinella produced a small knife and handed it to his lawyer. The county investigators didn’t take any action at the time.

About four months later, five of Catinella’s co-workers complained he was getting special benefits, including a phone and car that they didn’t receive. Shortly after that, Sykes said, four employees signed statements that Catinella had threatened to “shoot up the workplace.” The witness statements were inconsistent and contradictory, the Seventh Circuit said, but the county transportation department terminated Catinella’s employment, citing his possession of the knife and the alleged threats to co-workers.

Catinella then filed the lawsuit alleging hat the firing violated his due process rights under the 14th Amendment. But such a claim requires Catinella to show he was wrongfully deprived of a property right, Sykes said. In addition, she wrote, “Catinella has not identified any state law, local ordinance, or contract provision that limits Cook County’s ability to fire him.”

Judges William J. Bauer and Frank H. Easterbrook joined in the opinion.

Attorneys for Catinella and Cook County didn’t respond to requests for comment on the decision.

Anthony J. Peraica in Chicago argued the appeal for Michael Catinella. Chaka M. Patterson of the State’s Attorney’s office argued for Cook County.

The case is Catinella v. County of Cook , 2018 BL 31929, 7th Cir., 16-2278, 1/31/18 .

To contact the reporter on this story: Lawrence E. Dubé in Washington, D.C. at ldube@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Terence Hyland at thyland@bloomberglaw.com

Copyright © 2018 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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