The Volokh Conspiracy

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Free Speech

Illinois Town "Issue[s] 62 Tickets to an Elderly Couple for Having Lawn Chairs in Their Front Yard"

Based on the allegations of the complaint, "[i]f this case were a Monell crime scene, [Melrose Park Village Mayor Ronald Serpico] left his fingerprints, footprints, and DNA all over the place.


From Cozzi v. Village of Melrose Park, decided yesterday by Judge Steven Seeger (N.D. Ill.):

The Village of Melrose Park decided that 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 after fine, to two eighty-year-old residents, Plaintiffs Vincent and Angeline Cozzi.

The fines were not small potatoes. Each ticket cost $500, so the Village tagged them with fines totaling about $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 faulted the Cozzis for creating a nuisance and for "unsanitary conditions." The tickets did not explain what was unsanitary about the plastic lawn chairs. But the Village claimed that they were receiving anonymous calls about "clutter" on their front lawn.

The Cozzis, for their part, didn't view their lawn furniture as wasteful clutter. In fact, they regularly used the furniture to sit outside, and visit with loved ones in a socially distanced manner during the pandemic. The fresh air and companionship apparently cost them $30,000.

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

That free expression led to an avalanche of tickets. The Village issued the Cozzis a $500 ticket nearly every business 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 wasn't ticketing anyone else wasn't for lack of opportunities. The complaint is chock-full of pictures of other houses in the neighborhood. The surrounding lawns are adorned with used mattresses, a 15-foot skeleton with a Santa hat, garbage, and trampolines. There are reindeer, swans, candy canes, stars, pergolas, tchotchkes, and Christmas decorations at various degrees of garishness. Not to mention plenty of lawn furniture.

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

The retaliation stretched beyond the tickets. Michael Cozzi received a handwritten note from a police officer warning him about supposed parking violations. Several parking tickets soon followed.

And that's not all. The police surveilled the home 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, the Mayor of Melrose Park, Ronald Serpico, drove by and verbally threatened Michael Cozzi with violence.

If the reader is thinking that things have, at this point, gone completely off the rails, buckle up, because the ride is not yet over. In January 2021, as the deluge of tickets rained down, Michael Cozzi went to a public meeting at the Village of Melrose Park to express his concerns. The meeting, it turns out, was recorded. And to put it mildly, Mayor Serpico responded poorly. He unleashed what can only be described as a filthy, profanity-laden tirade with racial overtones. He told him 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 complaint against the Village and Mayor Serpico, bringing an assortment of federal and state law claims. They allege that the Village and the Mayor violated their right to equal protection, due process, free speech, and so on. The tidal wave of tickets mysteriously came to an end on March 3, a few days after service of process.

The court allowed the First Amendment claim to go forward, rejecting the defendants' motion to dismiss (of course, as usual, based on the allegations in the plaintiffs' complaint; whether the allegations are factually correct will be a matter for discovery and potentially for trial):

The Cozzis alleged that the Village retaliated against them for exercising their right to free speech. As they see it, the Village punished them with 62 tickets and roughly $30,000 in fines when Michael Cozzi spoke up about the mistreatment of his elderly parents….

[U]nder section 1983, a municipality is not vicariously liable for the actions of its employees. See Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs. (1978)…. [But a] municipality is responsible if "an actor with final decision-making authority within the entity adopted the relevant policy or custom." A municipality is on the hook for a decision "made by its lawmakers or by those whose edicts or acts may fairly be said to represent official policy." …

If this case were a Monell crime scene, [Village Mayor Ronald Serpico] left his fingerprints, footprints, and DNA all over the place. Consider, for starters, the tickets about the lawn furniture. The Mayor's secretary allegedly received complaints about "clutter" on the Cozzis' lawn. When the code enforcement officers delivered the first two tickets, they expressly stated that the tickets were "from the Mayor, not us."

On December 1, 2020, two code enforcement officers came back to the home, right before the next wave of tickets poured down. They told the Cozzis that their "boss" had received complaints about clutter on their property.

The issue with the parking tickets had a link to the Mayor, too. The "Mayor's Office" allegedly received complaints about how 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 recieved [sic] several emails from residents complaining about your parking your car on 15th with your hazards on for periods at a time."

Mayor Serpico personally participated in the surveillance of the Cozzis' home. And, in one particularly unfortunate episode, the Mayor tried to pick a fight with Michael Cozzi outside his home. The Mayor told Cozzi to count his blessings for the privilege of not getting beat up: "You're lucky I don't get out of this car and beat your *ss."

The toxicity increased when Michael Cozzi attended a public 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 expressing his concerns on social media.

That's when Mayor Serpico completely lost it. He lost his cool. He lost his temper. And if he has any ability to express himself without using expletives, he lost that too.

Mayor Serpico spewed the following missive: "I'm going to tell you something, you're really reaching me. So, do me a f*cking favor and sit down and shut the f*ck up. How's that? You little f*cking pr*ck. Go on, shake your f*cking head. You're nothing but a f*cking punk."

Michael Cozzi responded with a simple question: "What did I do to you?" That innocent question sent Mayor Serpico into the next stratosphere.

What he lacked in elegance—and in range of vocabulary—he made up for in directness: "You're a jag off! You look like a f*cking shine {a disparaging term for a black person} on 15th [avenue] because you're doing it to bust f*cking balls. That's what your doing. So, go f*ck yourself. Go f*ck yourself!"

Michael Cozzi then asked about his broken window. That didn't go over well.

When it came to expletives, Mayor Serpico still had some gas left in the tank: "I give a f*ck about your window. Like I worry about your f*cking house when I drive past it. Now do me a favor and go sit down and shut up."

At that point, one might have thought that Mayor Serpico had gotten his point 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 sh*t. You're like a f*cking hillbilly. You're like a hillbilly!"

Even by contemporary standards, such as they are, that outburst was an extraordinary display of profanity and aggression. It suggests a deep level of personal animus. And it shows a willingness to abuse one's position as a public servant. It was not the finest hour in the annals of public service.

The tirade may not have creative value, but it did have evidentiary value. Look again at the words that Mayor Serpico used. (And not just the profanity.) He told the Cozzis that they "live like a piece of sh*t." He said that Michael Cozzi lived like a "hillbilly." Id. He revealed both knowledge and contempt for how the Cozzis kept their home.

The meeting took place in January 2021, in the midst of the barrage of tickets about the lawn furniture. And the outburst came as Michael Cozzi attempted to express concern about the treatment of his elderly parents.

Reading the complaint as a whole, it takes a small step—not an inferential leap—to conclude that Mayor Serpico personally orchestrated the campaign of punitive tickets that rained down on the Cozzi family. The complaint paints a picture of state-sanctioned bullying at the hands of the Mayor, who implemented a policy of punishing dissent and compelling compliance. Overall, the allegations support the inference that Mayor Serpico implemented a policy to punish, harass, and intimidate the Cozzi family.

In the end, the allegations of the complaint may or may not pan out. It depends on the facts, and the parties need to gather the facts in discovery. And it is possible that the evidence will support a Monell claim on the other prongs, too. That is, maybe the record will include evidence of an express policy, or a widespread practice that is a custom or practice. But Plaintiffs would need to build a record.

That's a question for another day. Today's question is simply whether the complaint alleges enough to state a Monell claim. And by a wide margin, it does….

Congratulations to Cass Thomas Casper, Gianna Rochelle Scatchell, and Navarrio Douglas Wilkerson of Disparti Law Group, P.A. on their success at this stage of the case.