Former Argonne worker alleges lab, police falsely charged him with theft to fire him

By Scott Holland | Jul 15, 2015

Argonne National Laboratory  

A former employee at Argonne National Laboratory in suburban Lemont is suing over claims the lab and DuPage County Sheriff's police falsely charged him with stealing lab property, allowing lab management, with whom he had fallen out of favor, to fire him.

Michael Polowinczak, of Lemont, first worked at Argonne as a machinist in 1989. He joined the optics department in 1998, rising to the post of lead optician, which he held until mid-July 2013.

The circumstances of his termination are the focus of a suit he filed recently in federal court in Chicago. Named defendants include: DuPage County; DuPage County Sheriff John Zaruba; two DuPage County Sheriff’s deputies, identified as D. Kaczowski and S. Kuschell; UChicago Argonne LLC; Argonne National Laboratory; and Argonee employee Peter T. Spizzirri.

Polowinczak’s nine-count claim accuses the defendants of false arrest, unlawful detention, false imprisonment, defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress and wrongful termination/retaliatory discharge.

Polowinczak traces his struggles to a 2003 stint on a negotiating committee that prevented the layoff of an employee who had a year remaining before retirement. Polowinczak alleges Argonne employees told him following the negotiating committee proceedings that he “had a target on his back.” He also cites a shift in his duties in 2011 and 2012, as well as a failed March 2013 bid for a master optician position that went to an outside candidate. He lost an ensuing grievance, leading to verbal and written reprimands.

In May 2013, a project Polowinczak was working on allegedly ran over its budget and time limits. He blamed the overrun on the new master optician, but noted it reflected poorly on his own work. Polowinczak claims subsequent retaliation, harassment and a hostile work environment.

His challenges came to a head on July 12, 2013, when Kaczkowski and Kuschell stopped Polowinczak’s private vehicle on the Argonne campus. Polowinczak said the deputies did not say why they ordered him to pull over his car and that they harassed him and searched the vehicle. The deputies found and, without permission, opened a black bag containing gloves, safety glasses, batteries, sunglass, industrial tape and other items, all of which Polowinczak said were either Argonne property or which Argonne authorized him to possess. His job required him to transport lab property in his private car.

Polowinczak was given a citation for improper display of license sticker and expired registration. But the deputies also arrested him on charges of theft of Argonne property. The deputies took him to the DuPage County Jail where he was booked and detained before posting bond. He says the deputies convinced Spizzirri, the operations leader of Argonne security, to file a misdemeanor complaint for the property theft.

Argonne used the criminal charges to justify firing Polowinczak. He ultimately was acquitted, but Argonne did not reinstate his employment.

In the complaint, Polowinczak said the defendants wrote false police reports and fabricated details and evidence in order to justify the criminal charges, or at least “acted with intentional recklessness as to the veracity of their statements and actions.” The county, sheriff and deputies, he claimed, “failed to conduct an adequate investigation in an effort to harass, retaliate, and discriminate against him for political reasons.”

Polowinczak is seeking monetary compensation, to be determined at trial, for his “physical injuries and emotional distress,” as well as legal fees and punitive damages.

Polowinczak is represented by Anthony J. Peraica, of Chicago.

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