Labor & Employment Law Daily $14M would end female public defenders’ sexual harassment class action over detainee abuses
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Thursday, February 27, 2020

$14M would end female public defenders’ sexual harassment class action over detainee abuses

By Pamela Wolf, J.D.

The proposed settlement also includes important injunctive relief, such as videoconferencing and handcuffing and special jumpsuits for detainees who have reportedly abused female attorneys or law clerks.

Under a proposed deal, Cook County, Illinois; the Cook County Public Defender’s Office (CCPD); and the Cook County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) would pay $14 million to settle a class action alleging that they refused to stop daily sexual assaults against female Assistant Public Defenders (APD) and law clerks committed by detainees in Cook County’s custody. According to the complaint, these abuses included masturbation and verbal and physical attacks. The settlement funds would be distributed among a class of more than 500 current and former APDs and law clerks.

In a lawsuit initiated in 2017, the plaintiffs brought claims for a hostile work environment based on sex in violation of their right to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment, Section 1983, Title VII, the Illinois Civil Rights Act, and the Illinois Gender Violence Act, according to the parties’ joint stipulation.

Hostile work environment. The plaintiffs alleged that the CCSO “enacted policies and practices which fostered an environment in the courtroom lockups and jail whereby male detainees masturbated at female APDs and law clerks with de facto impunity.” The CCSO purportedly:

  • Instated a “pizza” reward program, which incentivized detainees to masturbate at or on female APDs.
  • Routinely escorted detainees who were repeat offenders to lock-up with other detainees without safeguards or restraints knowing that these inmates were likely to masturbate toward female APDs; and
  • Withdrew officers from the lockup and/or jail knowing that this action would directly cause masturbation incidents to occur.

For its part, the CCPD purportedly maintained a hostile work environment and retaliated against female APDs by:

  • Requiring the female APDs and law clerks to visit the lockups and jail knowing that they would be attacked;
  • Discouraging female APDs and law clerks from reporting attacks;
  • Opposing measures implemented by the CCSO, including but not limited to, handcuffing and legislation intended to stop the attacks;
  • Requiring female APDs who had been victimized to represent detainees in charges relating to masturbation or indecent exposure; and
  • Banning APDs from entering the lockups in the Leighton Criminal Courthouse in retaliation for the plaintiffs’ filing of discrimination charges with the EEOC.

Cook County allegedly created the hostile work environment by also requiring that female APDs and law clerks visit the lockups and jail as a condition of employment, by dropping funding for measures aimed at thwarting the sexual attacks, and by failing to use its authority over the construction and maintenance of correctional and court facilities to create safe spaces for APDs and law clerks to meet with detainees.

The defendants denied all of these allegations and also denied any liability for the conduct alleged in the class action suit.

Preliminary injunctive relief effective. The court previously certified a class and entered injunctive relief that has been effective in preventing further attacks on female APDs and law clerks, according to the law memorandum supporting the proposed settlement. The detainee sexual attacks substantially abated following implementation of the remedial measures; the number of reported incidents dramatically declined after January 2018. The proposed settlement agreement would ensure that the key elements of the earlier injunctive relief remain in effect for a period of two years following the entry of a final non-appealable order.

More about the settlement. The amount of the proposed settlement fund is $14,000,000, from which a minimum of $9,510,000 would be distributed to the class representatives, the named plaintiffs, and class members pro rata based on responses to claim forms scored by the claims administrator.

Class counsel would apply for service payments of $25,000 for each of the six class representatives, as well as service payments of $15,000 for three named plaintiffs who gave depositions; $10,000 for eight named plaintiffs who answered sworn interrogatories (but did not give depositions); and $5,000 for three class members who assisted the suit by providing sworn testimony and/or met with class counsel extensively to help prepare the suit to be filed.

In addition, class counsel would apply for reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs amounting to not more than 30 percent of the settlement fund ($4,200,000). The costs of notice and administration of the settlement would be paid out of this amount.

Injunctive relief targeted to the CCPD. The proposed settlement includes injunctive relief under which the CCPD would be required to make videoconferencing available for APDs and law clerks to communicate with their detainee clients, subject to approval of the APD’s or law clerk’s Chief of the Division. The CCPD’s position is that videoconferencing is not a substitute for in-person meetings with clients at the Cook County jail or the lockup facilities in the Leighton Criminal Courthouse. Among other things, the CCPD would enact a policy concerning the representation of clients who have engaged in sexual harassment of APDs and law clerks.

Measures to be taken by the CCSO. For its part, the CCSO has already established a process by which an APD may report an incident of indecent exposure, masturbation, or other sexual misconduct and has posted this same information in Court Service Division courthouse lockups. Under the proposed settlement, the CCSO would update this posting to include law clerks and to provide the policy for requesting the final outcome of an incident report. The CCSO would also keep the postings of this information in the Court Service Division courthouse lockups.

For a designated period, detainees with a reported incident of indecent exposure, masturbation, or sexual misconduct would continue to be provided with and required to wear a jumpsuit designed to thwart indecent exposure and masturbation. The jumpsuit would be promptly provided and required upon the first report of the behavior by any sworn or civilian personnel or person, without awaiting an inmate disciplinary hearing or adjudication. All detainees with a reported incident of indecent exposure or masturbation or sexual misconduct would continue to be handcuffed during transport from the Department of Corrections to the Court Services Division of the Cook County Judicial System facilities, and would remain handcuffed unless otherwise ordered by a criminal court judge, until their return to the jail.

The CCSO would also continue to assign a deputized sworn staff member or exempt staff member to each of the eight lockup areas in the Leighton Criminal Courthouse on specified floors to remain in each of those lockup areas at all times when nonsworn court personnel are present with detainees. Among other things, CCSO would make existing videoconferencing capabilities available for APD client meetings.

The lawsuit, Brown v. Cook County, was filed in the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division; the case is No. 17-cv-8085.

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