Cook County Record

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Judge rules no proof Cook County Recorder's Office layoffs were politically motivated


By Dan Churney | Jun 20, 2019

Illinois yarbrough karen 1280
Karen Yarbrough | Youtube screenshot

CHICAGO -- A federal magistrate has tossed out a lawsuit by two former employees of the Cook County Recorder of Deeds Office, who alleged the office fired them for their perceived political ties to the previous Recorder. The judge found the allegations held little water.

The decision was issued June 18 by Magistrate Judge Sidney Schenkier of U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. The ruling dismissed a suit by Khesi Pillows and Tiffany Wilson against the Cook County Recorder’s Office and Cook County, but gave plaintiffs leave to amend their case.

Pillows and Wilson were system analysts with the Recorder’s office, Pillows joining in 1999 and Wilson in 2001, documents show. They worked under Recorder Eugene Moore, a Democrat, until Moore retired in 2012. Karen Yarbrough, another Democrat, was elected to the post later that year.

Yarbrough departed the Recorder's office earlier this year, when she was inaugurated after being elected Cook County Clerk, replacing David Orr, who chose not to seek reelection.

Edward Moody now serves as Cook County Recorder of Deeds.

In December 2016, the jobs of Pillows and Wilson were eliminated, with an unnamed Recorder’s official telling them it was a budgetary measure, according to the suit. However, the pair alleged they were let go because they were not politically affiliated with Yarbrough, but rather were believed linked to former Recorder Moore, in part because Moore was Pillows’ godfather. Moore died in June 2016.

The plaintiffs further pointed out two other people were hired around the time of their termination, with similar salaries, which they alleged belied the explanation the layoffs were due to budget considerations.

Pillows and Wilson sued the office and the county in 2018, citing the 1972 federal Shakman Decree, which bars Illinois agencies from letting politics improperly control government jobs. The decree was instituted after lawyers Michael Shakman and Paul Lurie lodged a class action suit in 1969 against the Democratic organization of Cook County, the city of Chicago and various officeholders in an attempt to root out political favoritism. 

The Recorder’s office and county moved to dismiss the Pillows-Wilson case, contending the suit was deficient on facts. Schenkier agreed.

Schenkier pointed out the suit's only factual allegation is that shortly after Yarbrough took office, Deputy Recorder William Velazquez put together a document saying Wilson and others associated with Moore should be discharged. 

“This statement says nothing specifically about Ms. Pillows, or any basis for a claim of political discrimination against her,” Schenkier said.

Moreover, the plaintiffs do not assert that Velazquez had the authority to discharge them, which suggests the purported document is a “stray remark” made by a “non-decisionmaker,” Schenkier observed, partly quoting a 2011 Chicago federal court ruling.

In addition, plaintiffs did not include the purported document in their suit, Schenkier noted.

“Plaintiffs presumably have access to the document prepared by Mr. Velazquez — they quoted a portion of it — so it is unclear why plaintiffs did not attach it to their complaint,” Schenkier ruled.

A bigger problem, in Schenkier’s eyes, was the “fundamental defect” that Pillows and Wilson were not laid off until four years after Yarbrough assumed office.

“If plaintiffs’ alleged political affiliation with the former Recorder of Deeds was anathema to Ms. Yarbrough, we would expect her office to have ‘cleaned house’ as soon as possible after the regime change in late 2012, not years later,” Schenkier observed.

Schenkier further said it was possible budget constraints were indeed behind the plaintiffs' discharge. Their contention that two new employees were hired with about the same pay as theirs, fell flat with Schenkier, because he found there could be legitimate reasons that they were hired. As an example, Schenkier said the new hires could have filled positions that ordinarily commanded higher salaries, and money was saved by paying them a lesser amount in line with the plaintiffs’ pay.

The county asked Schenkier to deny plaintiffs a chance to amend their complaint, but the magistrate refused, giving plaintiffs until July 10 to amend. 

Pillows and Wilson are represented by the Chicago firm of Ed Fox & Associates.

The Recorder and Cook County are defended by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office.

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