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Fired sheriff’s officer wins lawsuit; could undo dozens of firings

Sunday, October 15, 2017
Chicago Sun-Times
by Andy Grimm

 

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart. | Sun-Times file photo

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After years of litigation over the 2012 firing of a single Cook County sheriff’s police officer, dozens of other officers, jail guards and courtroom deputies fired for misconduct could get their jobs back, and hundreds more suspended without pay could be in line for possibly six-figure payouts.

The state Supreme Court last month declined to consider an appeal of a lower court ruling that found Sheriff Tom Dart and the Cook County Board improperly appointed members to the Sheriff’s Merit Board, which hands out firings and suspensions for sheriff’s sworn personnel.

 

The decision raises questions about hundreds of disciplinary cases brought by Dart, who has aggressively filed charges against officers, deputies and guards during his nearly 10 years in office. The ruling has caused an “administrative and bureaucratic mess” that might take years to unravel, said Cara Smith, Dart’s chief policy officer.

The ruling affects cases that date back at least until 2011, and the sheriff’s and state’s attorney’s offices are researching whether earlier board appointments could affect even more cases, Smith said.

“The decision from the appeals court is what it is. We are going to cure the issues they’ve identified,” Smith said. “We take our disciplinary procedures very seriously. And this is very concerning.”

Sheriff’s police officer Percy Taylor was fired in 2012, not long after Dart had appointed John Rosales in 2011 to finish the final year of the term of a departing merit board member.

State law, Taylor successfully argued, requires all board members to be appointed to six-year terms. Taylor’s lawyer discovered the technicality while doing research for a lawsuit aimed at getting Taylor his job back.

Taylor would like to return to duty and is owed more than $400,000 in back pay for the five years since the merit board first suspended him, said Richard Linden, Taylor’s lawyer.

 

“I don’t know if it was great lawyering, but there it was,” Linden said. “I couldn’t imagine that the merit board would be that neglectful. It created a mess for the sheriff.”

Linden is no longer the only lawyer scrutinizing the dates merit board members took their seats. A class-action lawsuit filed against the sheriff’s office this year lists four other merit board members — some appointed after Taylor filed his lawsuit in 2013 — who were appointed to terms that don’t line up with state law. The lawsuit could affect more than 200 cases heard by the board between 2011 and 2015, said Dana Kurtz, an attorney representing three corrections officers who are lead plaintiffs in the class-action case.

“They’re entitled to due process,” Kurtz said. “That would be like saying that someone could go before a criminal judge that hadn’t been elected, hadn’t been appointed but was someone sitting as a judge.”

It’s not clear whether sheriff’s officers who’d been fired could be reinstated and then immediately charged with the same offenses and land in front of the merit board and fired again, both Kurtz and Linden said. Smith declined to comment, as did merit board Chairman James Nally.

Linden said the officers should be entitled to back pay from the date they were first suspended without pay.

“The first thing the merit board does is review whether you’re suspended with or without pay while your case is pending,” Linden said. “If the board is not legally

constituted, those decisions are void as well, I would think, and the average salary of these officers is going to be around $70,000 or $80,000 with benefits.”

Smith said it was not clear whether the ruling would require the sheriff to reinstate officers fired for “egregious misconduct,” such as Rico Palomino, a corrections officer fired after he coldcocked a jail inmate in 2012. Palomino was later convicted on criminal charges of aggravated battery and official misconduct.

Dennis Andrews, business agent for Teamsters Local 700, said the union hadn’t decided how it would challenge the merit board decisions, a process he said would be a “massive undertaking.” Andrews, whose union represents corrections officers, said many of the officers who have been fired during Dart’s three terms lost their jobs because of “attendance issues,” not serious misconduct.

“They’re saying, ‘Oh no, all these bad officers might come back to work!’” Andrews said. “But the bottom line in all this is is he screwed up, and he’s not standing up to taxpayers and media and taking the blame.

“Our officers can’t go [in front of the merit board] and say ‘I didn’t know it was wrong’ and [Dart] says, ‘Go ahead.’ No. He goes to fire them.”



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