CHICAGO — A lawsuit which accuses the campaign of Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker of racial discrimination, and accuses Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton of defamation, can continue, a Chicago federal judge has ruled.
The judge, however, removed Pritzker himself as a defendant in the action.
A group of Pritzker campaign workers on Nov. 6 amended their initial complaint to add Pritzker and Stratton as individual defendants in a discrimination lawsuit brought in the closing days of the campaign, particularly targeting Stratton for allegedly defaming the campaign workers behind the suit as “extortionists.”
Attorneys Shay T. Allen and Jeanette Samuels, both of Chicago, represent a group of black and Latino former Pritzker campaign workers. The named plaintiffs in the action had worked or were still working as field organizers in the Pritzker campaign at the time the lawsuit was filed in 2018. The complaint notes many of the plaintiffs also worked on other high-profile Democratic campaigns, while others worked as activists in other progressive causes and for labor unions.
Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton
The Nov. 6 amended complaint, alleged the Pritzker campaign retaliated against five plaintiffs, placing them on “ ‘administrative leave with pay,’ pending the outcome of an investigation into knowingly false allegations against them,” actions they said were taken with the approval and knowledge of Pritzker, Stratton and Pritzker campaign manager Anna Capara.
U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall issued an opinion April 5 in Chicago, ruling on motions to dismiss and strike immaterial or unrelated allegations.
Kendall first denied the motions to strike, saying that although the workers’ “allegations smack of sex discrimination and labor relation violations, they are not scandalous to the point of creating undue prejudice.” Workers alleged the campaign didn’t sufficiently respond to their sexual harassment complaint because those workers were black, which Kendall said is sufficiently linked to the underlying discrimination claim.
She also denied motions to dismiss specifically named plaintiffs, explaining that they needed only to allege enough facts to make it reasonable discovery would reveal detailed evidence. Kendall wrote the complaint includes “examples of general racial discrimination by the campaign, including racially specific tasks, discriminatory refusal of telecommuting privileges, racial language and racially selective geographic assignments.”
However, Kendall dismissed claims of discrimination and harassment against Pritzker, Stratton, Capara and Quentin Fulks, saying the complaint lacked “even bare conclusory allegations” of those people being involved in the alleged retaliation. She also dismissed some individual plaintiffs’ harassment claims, but would not dismiss any allegations of discrimination.
The workers alleged the campaign neglected a sexual harassment complaint because the worker who complained was black, terminated workers who challenged racial inequality, subjected a worker to unsafe work conditions because of her race and failed to address both racial discrimination complaints and risks of violent crime at a regional office, all of which Kendall said could rise to the level of adverse employment actions bolstering a discrimination complaint.
Kendall dismissed the retaliation charge, noting the complaint didn’t name which five workers were placed on paid suspension of the eight who could make up that group. But she did allow the defamation claim against Stratton to survive, noting the workers only had to claim harm to their professional reputation.
“Stratton’s alleged accusation could feasibly fall under the categories of imputing a lack of integrity and ability in job functions or otherwise prejudicing a person’s profession,” Kendall wrote. She noted Stratton’s comment about extortion could be construed to refer to only the underlying lawsuit, but said the workers effectively pleaded “an imputation of a lack of professional integrity” because Stratton’s comment could hurt the workers’ ability to latch on with future campaigns.
The Pritzker campaign is represented in the action by attorney William B. Stafford, of the firm of Perkins Coie LLP, of Seattle.