Cook County Record

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Female public defenders could get $9.5M, lawyers $4.2M, under deal to end class action over masturbating jail inmates

Federal Court

By Jonathan Bilyk | Feb 25, 2020

Illinois dart tom
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart | Youtube screenshot

Lawyers for a group of female Cook County public defenders could be in line for more than $4 million in fees, and taxpayers on the hook for a total payout of more than $14 million, to resolve a class action over the Cook County Sheriff’s Office’s alleged failure to stop jail inmates from masturbating in front of the women.

On Feb. 21, attorneys Robin Potter and Maria de las Nieves Bolaños, of the firm of Potter Bolaños, filed a motion in Chicago federal court, asking a judge to sign off on the settlement deal.

Under the proposed settlement, U.S. District Judge Matthew F. Kennelly would extend for another two years an injunction first imposed in late 2017, ordering Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart and his staff to implement measures to stop, or at least discourage, male inmates from masturbating in front of public defenders.

The settlement, however, also calls for the sheriff’s office to pay more than $9.5 million to assistant public defenders who would be included in the proposed class of plaintiffs. According to a brief filed along with the motion for preliminary approval of the settlement, the payouts would go to “all female assistant public defenders (not including supervisors) and female law clerks” who visited the county jail or courthouse lockups from Nov. 1, 2015 to Oct. 28, 2019.

Neither the motion nor the accompanying brief in support of the settlement agreement state how many would be eligible for a payout under the settlement, or what the average payout would be.

The settlement agreement also calls for $4.2 million to be paid to the Potter and Bolaños firm.

The brief says the fees would be paid in addition to the $9.5 million for the public defenders and law clerks, and represent about 30% of the total settlement. The fees, however, are equivalent to 44% of the amount being paid to the alleged victims in the class action.

The public defenders and the Potter and Bolaños lawyers first filed the complaint against Cook County, Dart and Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli in 2017.

Their lawsuit was quickly followed by a similar class action on behalf of female Cook County Sheriff’s Office employees. Those plaintiffs are represented by a number of attorneys, including from the firms of Kulwin Masciopinto & Kulwin LLP; Noelle Brennan & Associates; Hughes Socol Piers Resnick Dym; Mehri & Skalet PLLC; and Willenson Law LLC.

The Kulwin lawyers also recently represented Alaina Hampton, who sued and settled with Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, the Illinois Democratic Party and Madigan’s political organizations for not preventing Madigan operative Kevin Quinn from allegedly sexually harassing her.

Noelle Brennan’s firm serves as a monitor of Illinois state hiring practices, under a decree issued by a federal judge.

The lawsuit by the sheriff’s office female employees remains pending, also before Judge Kennelly.

Under both lawsuits, Dart has been accused of allowing the creation of sexually hostile work environment, enacting policies that either allegedly ignored or in some ways incentivized male jail detainees to expose their penises and masturbate in front of female public defenders, law clerks, jail guards and other females visiting either the Cook County Jail or courthouse lockups.

The public defenders' lawsuit asserted the inmates also engaged in “other acts of sex-based aggression, verbal threats and harassment .. on an almost daily basis.”

The complaints alleged a group of detainees who called themselves “Savage Life” were “key in organizing and directing” the sexual assaults, by awarding “points to reward individual detainees for each incident of assault or masturbation, depending on the severity of the incident and the female … who is targeted.

The complaint asserted reporting on such incidents was infrequent. And even when criminal charges were filed against offending detainees, “the indecency charges are often dropped by Cook County State’s Attorneys,” or fail to increase the offenders’ sentences.

According to the complaint, Dart allegedly incentivized a rise in the masturbatory incidents and sexual assaults by “rewarding serial masturbators with pizza,” should they go 30 days “without another sexual assault/masturbating incident.” Inmates who did not engage in the sexually aggressive behavior at all weren’t eligible for the pizza, the complaint said.

According to the brief filed in support of the settlement, the number of incidents decreased after Kennelly issued a preliminary injunction in late 2017, ordering the sheriff’s office to handcuff detainees who had been accused of sexual aggression while in transport or at the courthouse; to require such offenders to wear special jumpsuits; and prohibiting retaliation against public defenders who complain of the behavior, among other measures.

Cook County has been defended by attorneys with the firm of Reiter Burns LLP, of Chicago.

Campanelli has been represented by attorneys with the firm of Hervas, Condon & Bersani P.C., of Chicago.

Dart has been defended by the firm of McGuire Woods LLP, of Chicago.

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Organizations in this Story

Cook County Sheriff's DepartmentKulwin, Masciopinto & KulwinU.S. District Court for the Northern District of IllinoisCook County Public DefenderNoelle Brennan and AssociatesRobin Potter & Associates, PC.Law Office of McGuire WoodsHervas, Condon and Bersani PCReiter Burns LLP