Illinois City Issue[s] 62 tickets for an elderly couple to have lawn chairs in their front yard”

From Cozzi v. Village of Melrose Parkdecided yesterday by Judge Steven Seeger (ND Ill.):

The Village of Melrose Park decided it would be a good idea to issue 62 tickets to an elderly couple for having lawn chairs in their front yard. The Village issued ticket after ticket, imposing fine upon fine, to two octogenarians, plaintiffs Vincent and Angeline Cozzi.

The fines were no small potatoes. With each ticket costing $500, the Village imposed fines on them totaling approximately $30,000. And when it was all said and done, the Village slapped them with a lien on their house, for good measure.

The tickets blamed the Cozzi for creating a nuisance and “unsanitary conditions”. The tickets did not explain what was unhygienic about the plastic lawn chairs. But the village said it was getting anonymous calls about “clutter” on its lawn.

The Cozzis, on the other hand, didn’t view their patio furniture as unnecessary clutter. In fact, they regularly used the furniture to sit outside and visit loved ones in a socially distanced manner during the pandemic. Fresh air and company apparently cost them $30,000.

A reader might wonder how things could have gone off the rails so dramatically. The village of Melrose Park, it seems, reacted badly when claimant Michael Cozzi (Vincent and Angeline’s adult son) complained about the first two tickets, and the mistreatment of his parents more generally. Michael Cozzi has attended public meetings in Melrose Park, and he has expressed his concerns on social media about the village harassing his elderly parents.

This freedom of expression has led to an avalanche of fines. The Village issued the Cozzis a $500 ticket almost every working day from December 3, 2020 to March 3, 2021. Christmas Eve was no exception. The tickets would financially cripple the Cozzis, an elderly couple on a fixed income.

{The fact that the Village was not offering tickets to anyone else was not for lack of opportunity. The complaint is full of photos of other homes in the neighborhood. The surrounding lawns are adorned with used mattresses, a 15-foot skeleton with a Santa hat, trash, and trampolines. There are reindeer, swans, candy canes, stars, pergolas, tchotchkes and Christmas decorations in varying degrees of garishness. Not to mention plenty of garden furniture.

What were these lawns missing? [according to the Complaint]? Tickets.}

The retaliation extended beyond the tickets. Michael Cozzi received a handwritten note from a police officer warning him of alleged parking violations. Several parking tickets soon followed.

And that’s not all. The police monitored the house several times a day. Michael Cozzi received threatening text messages from unknown or restricted phone numbers. Someone broke his car window. And on one occasion, Melrose Park Mayor Ronald Serpico drove by and verbally threatened Michael Cozzi with violence.

If the reader thinks things have, at this point, gone completely off the rails, buckle up, because the ride isn’t over yet. In January 2021, as the deluge of tickets rained down, Michael Cozzi went to a town hall meeting in the village of Melrose Park to voice his concerns. Turns out the meeting was taped. And to put it mildly, Mayor Serpico got the wrong answer. He unleashed what can only be described as a dirty, crass tirade with racial overtones. He told her where to go, and then some.

The village told the Cozzis where to go, but they went to the federal courthouse instead. They filed a six-count lawsuit against the village and Mayor Serpico, bringing an assortment of claims in federal and state law. They allege that the village and the mayor violated their rights to equal protection, due process, free speech, etc. The tidal wave of tickets mysteriously ended on March 3, days after the court documents were served.

The court allowed the First Amendment claim to proceed, denying defendants’ motion to dismiss (of course, as usual, based on the allegations contained in plaintiffs’ complaint; whether the allegations are factually correct ones will be a matter to discover and potentially try):

The Cozzis alleged that the village retaliated against them for exercising their right to free speech. According to them, the Village punished them with 62 tickets and approximately $30,000 in fines when Michael Cozzi spoke about the abuse of his elderly parents….

[U]Under section 1983, a municipality is not vicariously liable for the actions of its employees. To see Monella c. Dep’t of Soc. Serves. (1978)…. [But a] the municipality is liable if “an actor with final decision-making power within the entity has adopted the relevant policy or custom”. A municipality is responsible for a decision “made by its legislators or by those whose edicts or acts may justly be taken to represent official policy”. …

If this case was monell crime scene, [Village Mayor Ronald Serpico] left his fingerprints, footprints and DNA everywhere. Consider, for a start, the notes on garden furniture. The mayor’s secretary reportedly received complaints about “clutter” on the Cozzi lawn. When code enforcement officers issued the first two tickets, they specifically stated that the tickets came from “the mayor, not us”.

On December 1, 2020, two code enforcement officers returned to the home, just before the next wave of tickets arrived. They told the Cozzis that their “boss” had received complaints about clutter at their property.

The problem with the parking tickets also had to do with the mayor. The “mayor’s office” reportedly received complaints about the way the Cozzis parked their cars on the street. In early December 2020, a police officer left a handwritten warning letter on the windshield of Michael Cozzi’s car. The note invoked the Mayor: “The Mayor has received [sic] several emails from residents complaining that you parked your car on the 15th with your risk for periods at a time. »

Mayor Serpico personally participated in the surveillance of the Cozzi’s home. And, in one particularly unfortunate episode, the mayor tried to fight Michael Cozzi outside his home. The mayor told Cozzi to count on his blessings for the privilege of not getting beat up: “You’re lucky I’m not getting out of this car and beating your *ss.”

The toxicity increased when Michael Cozzi attended a town hall meeting at the Village in January 2021. Cozzi intended to express his concerns to the mayor about the treatment of his elderly parents. He came to the meeting after attending other Village meetings and after voicing his concerns on social media.

It was then that Mayor Serpico completely lost it. He lost his temper. He lost his calm. And if he has the ability to express himself without using swear words, he’s lost that too.

Mayor Serpico spat out the following missive: “I’m gonna tell you something, you’re really getting to me. So do me a fucking favor and sit down and shut the fuck up. How’s that? You little f *cking pr*ck. Come on, shake your fucking head. You’re nothing but a fucking punk.

Michael Cozzi answered with a simple question: “What did I do to you?” This innocent question sent Mayor Serpico into the next stratosphere.

What he lacked in elegance – and range of vocabulary – he made up for in candor: “You’re a jag off! You look like a fucking brilliant {a derogatory term for a black person} on the 15th [avenue] because you do it to break fucking balls. That’s what you do. So fuck you. Screw you !”

Michael Cozzi then asked about his broken window. It didn’t go well.

As for the swearing, Mayor Serpico still had gas in the tank: “I don’t give a damn about your window. Like I’m worried about your fucking house when I pass by. Now give me a favor and go sit down and be quiet.”

At that time, one would have thought that Mayor Serpico had gotten his message across. But the mayor apparently thought otherwise. To cement the point, Mayor Serpico told him what he really thought: “Yeah, because you live like a piece of shit. You’re like a fucking hick. You’re like a hick!”

Even by contemporary standards, such as they are, this outburst was an extraordinary display of blasphemy and aggression. This suggests a deep level of personal animosity. And that shows a willingness to abuse his position as a civil servant. It was not the finest hour in the annals of public service.

The tirade may not have had creative value, but it had probative value. Look again at the words Mayor Serpico used. (And not just profanity.) He told the Cozzis that they “live like shit.” He said that Michael Cozzi lived like a “hick”. Identifier. He revealed both his knowledge and his disdain for the way the Cozzis kept their house.

The meeting took place in January 2021, amid the barrage of garden furniture tickets. And the outburst came as Michael Cozzi tried to voice his concern over the treatment of his elderly parents.

Reading the complaint as a whole, it only takes one small step — not an inferential leap — to conclude that Mayor Serpico personally orchestrated the punitive ticketing campaign that befell the Cozzi family. The complaint paints a picture of state-sanctioned intimidation by the mayor, who implemented a policy of punishing dissent and having to comply. Taken together, the allegations support the conclusion that Mayor Serpico implemented a policy to punish, harass and intimidate the Cozzi family.

Ultimately, the allegations in the complaint may or may not come to fruition. It depends on the facts, and the parties must gather the facts upon discovery. And it is possible that the evidence supports a monell complaint on the other aspects, too. That is, the record may contain evidence of an express policy or widespread practice that is a custom or practice. But applicants would need to build a case.

That’s a question for another day. The issue today is simply whether the complaint alleges enough to state a monell claim. And by a wide margin, it does….

Kudos to Cass Thomas Casper, Gianna Rochelle Scatchell and Navarrio Douglas Wilkerson of Disparti Law Group, PA for their success at this stage of the case.