CHICAGO – A Chicago federal judge has, for now, blocked four African American men from pressing discrimination claims against the panel responsible for reviewing hiring and firing decisions at the Cook County Sheriff's Office, saying the men lacked standing to continue their suit alleging the Cook County Sheriff's Merit Board engaged in a pattern of discrimination when the sheriff's office declined their applications to become Cook County correctional officers.
The lawsuit against the Cook County Sheriff, however, continues.
On Sept. 13, U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman dismissed the Merit Board as a defendant in th lawsuit brought by plaintiffs Joseph D.G. Simpson, Frederick Merkerson, Maurice Richardson and Jonathan Harris, alleging the sheriff’s office and Merit Board violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Illinois Civil Rights Act and the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution when the sheriff's office declined to hire them.
In recent years, all four plaintiffs applied for jobs as correctional officers in the sheriff's office. While the Merit Board allowed the applications of Simpson, Harris and Richardson to advance, the sheriff's office ultimately declined their applications.
The Merit Board denied Merkerson's application in October 2015.
The men did not file suit until earlier this year, however.
In responding to the lawsuit, the Merit Board asserted none of the men had standing to sue the board, for various reasons.
The Merit Board noted none of the men actually filed complaints against the board with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as is typically required before bringing such a discrimination lawsuit under federal civil rights law, thus failing to exhaust their administrative options before involving the courts.
Further, the Merit Board said Simpson, Richard, and Harris didn’t have a case because the board actually ceertified their applications initially, forwarding them to the sheriff's office, which denied the men's requests for employment.
While the plaintiffs asserted the exhaustion rule isn’t enough to prove their alleged failure to exhaust their options, the district court added, “the plaintiffs’ EEOC charges are central to their claim and, because they were referenced in the complaint, therefore may be considered at this stage in the proceedings.”
The judge also noted Merkerson’s claims have passed Illinois’ two-year statute of limitation, as his lawsuit was filed in January 2018, more than two years after the Merit Board denied his job application.
Judge Coleman, however, only dismissed the allegations against the Merit Board without prejudice, meaning the plaintiffs can yet attempt to revive their claims against the board in an amended complaint addressing the deficiencies identified by the judge.
The ruling comes about six weeks after Judge Coleman also dismissed some of the civil rights allegations in the lawsuit against Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who was substituted in his official capacity as a defendant in place of the sheriff's office.
However, in that Aug. 8 decision, Judge Coleman still allowed the plaintiffs' Title VII claims to proceed, finding the plaintiffs did not fail to exhaust their administrative remedies in suing the sheriff's office, as three of the four men filed EEOC complaints against the sheriff.
Plaintiffs are represented in the case by attorneys Marni J. Willenson and Samantha M. Kronk, of Willenson Law LLC, of Chicago; and Cyrus Mehri, Ellen Louise Eardley and Michael D. Lieder, of Mehri & Skalet PLLC, of Washington, D.C.