Judge Certifies Class Action Lawsuit for Women Employees at Cook County Jail

August 14, 2019

by M&S Staff

Federal Judge Certifies Class Action Lawsuit for Cook County Jail Women Employees

Suit Alleges Sheriff Dart and Cook County Failed to Protect Women Against Widespread Sexual Harassment by Inmates

CHICAGO, Ill. (Aug. 14, 2019) — A federal judge has granted class action status for a sexual harassment lawsuit on behalf of hundreds of women employed by the Cook County Jail as correctional officers, sheriff deputies, paramedics, nurses, and in other jobs. The suit documents a pattern of pervasive and disturbing sexual harassment by inmates directed at women working in the Jail and failure by Sheriff Tom Dart and the County to take action to address it.

About 150 women submitted testimony describing the masturbation attacks, verbal sexual harassment, unwanted sexual touching, and sexual threats from inmates. Plaintiffs’ expert Louise Fitzgerald, who specializes in the study of sexual harassment and workplace mistreatment, has described the Cook County Jail Complex as “the most sexually toxic work environment I have encountered in over 30 years of research and practice.”

“We are proud that we have crossed this important hurdle and are one step closer to getting justice for the hundreds of women who endure sexual misconduct by inmates at the Jail. Our clients are heroic women responsible for the safety and security of the Jail and for providing health care to inmates,” said Marni Willenson, co-counsel. “All women working in these critical public safety positions should be able to do their jobs without being degraded and sexually harassed.”

This proposed class action has been led by Chicago law firms – Willenson Law, LLC; Noelle Brennan & Associates; Hughes Socol Piers Resnick & Dym; Kulwin, Masciopinto, and Kulwin – and Washington D.C. based Mehri & Skalet. The D.C. firm won a similar lawsuit against a Florida federal prison for $20 million dollars and injunctive relief.

“This is an exciting step forward for the women employees of Cook County Jail, and an important step in holding Sheriff Dart accountable. For years, the Sheriff’s Office has claimed that they ‘lack the tools’ to deal with this issue, but as the facts we have gathered in this suit to date shows, that is just not true. In fact, as our expert Jeanne Woodford explained in her reports, the solutions are not even difficult. Inmate harassment can be severely curtailed,” said Noelle Brennan, co-counsel.

The women in the Cook County lawsuit allege that incidents at Cook County Jail are severely underreported because the Sheriff’s Office has allowed the inmates to escape any real consequences for sexual misconduct. When women report the disturbing behavior to their superiors, they often have been told it was part of the job.

“It’s a significant victory for the class to be certified and an important #MeToo moment for women who work in jails and prisons,” said Ellen Eardley, co-counsel. “Certification of sexual harassment class actions is rare. We are pleased the Court recognized the value of allowing the women’s claims – based on common experiences of sexual harassment – to proceed together.”

In November 2017, the U.S. District Court Judge Matthew F. Kennelly issued a preliminary injunction to address some of the harassment. Since the 2017 injunction, the level of sexual harassment and
masturbation attacks at the jail has declined but the county and sheriff’s office have refused to take adequate steps to curtail the extreme harassment. These steps include:

• Invest in products other institutions use like specially designed exposure control uniforms to combat masturbation and indecent exposure.

• Have a zero-tolerance policy against inmate sexual harassment.

• Implement and train employees on a protocol to respond to inmate indecent exposure, masturbation attacks, attempted assaults, and verbal harassment.

• Operate a functioning disciplinary system that holds inmates accountable for misbehavior and imposes stronger sanctions on repeat offenders.

Case Information

Howard v. Cook County Sheriff’s Office

Case No. 17- cv-8146

United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois