A federal judge weighing evidence in a lawsuit filed by former police sergeant Dan Harder has ruled that there is nothing to tie the mayor of Forest Park to Harder’s claim that a political conspiracy led to his firing.
The July 18 ruling by U.S. District Court Judge James Moran dismisses Mayor Anthony Calderone as a defendant in the case. According to Harder’s claim, the push to fire Harder from the police department originated with Calderone. The mayor’s revenge was allegedly motivated by Harder’s role in a 2002 lawsuit against the village. In the 2002 case, Harder and two female officers accused a former police chief of sexual harassment and then deputy chief Michael Cody of sexual assault.
“The parties do not appear to dispute that Harder was engaging in protected speech both when he filed his sexual harassment claim against the village and when he testified in the sexual harassment suit against [Joe] Abruzino,” the director of the Proviso Township Mental Health Commission and a purported supporter of the mayor, Moran said in his written opinion. Calderone has denied this relationship with Abruzino. “However, Harder has failed to present any evidence that could lead a reasonable jury to conclude that Calderone participated in either of the two alleged acts of retaliation at issue here.”
Moran cited four pieces of evidence submitted by Harder that allegedly put the mayor at the center of the revenge plot. The court dismissed those connections as “mere speculation” and unreasonable conclusions.
Andrew Staes, Calderone’s attorney in the case, said the ruling should punch a substantial hole in Harder’s claim. Without someone giving orders in this alleged conspiracy, said Staes, there is no concerted effort to fire the plaintiff.
“There was no conspiracy,” Staes said of Harder’s claim.
Harder’s attorney, Jeanine Stevens, said her client’s suit still has merit. Although the person alleged to have spurred the retaliation against Harder cannot be held personally responsible, Stevens said the mayor will still play a crucial role in proving the claims against the remaining defendants.
“He doesn’t need to be a defendant to prove that he was part of this collusion to get rid of Dan,” Stevens said of Calderone. “He was relatively careful to insulate himself.”
Stevens said she has no plans to appeal the judge’s ruling. Should the case go to trial, as requested by Harder, the mayor would still be called to testify, Stevens said.
Cody, the former deputy police chief, is now a lieutenant in the department and a defendant in Harder’s wrongful termination suit against the village. Cody’s ex-wife Sally Cody, the mayor’s administrative assistant, is also a defendant. Police Chief Jim Ryan has been named a defendant as well.
Staes said he had not spoken with the attorneys for the remaining defendants, but speculated that with “zero evidence” tying Calderone to the alleged plot, the court may see a succession of requests to have the case dropped.
In May, the same judge upheld the village Fire and Police Commission’s findings that Harder violated nine department policies. A tenth violation sustained by the local body was overturned by the court. In that opinion, however, Moran described the punishment as “arbitrary and unreasonable” and ordered the village to reinstate Harder. That decision is under appeal with the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.
In this most recent ruling, Moran referenced his May opinion that “a fair amount of evidence” suggests Harder is the victim of retaliation, but found no reason for the mayor to be held liable for such acts.