Jail guard settlement gets pushFederal judge scolds county's lawyers over civil rights suit
Friday, November 18, 2005
by Michael Higgins & Mickey Ciokajlo
A federal judge scolded Cook County lawyers Thursday for not trying to settle a civil rights lawsuit brought by two jail guards, saying the case has already cost taxpayers $617,000 and could easily cost millions more. But a sheriff's spokesman and a key County Board member said the county intends to stand its ground.
U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo reacted with dismay when county lawyers told him that the County Board's litigation subcommittee had not authorized them to negotiate a settlement.
"I think litigation subcommittees are good at rejecting things," Castillo told the defense lawyers. "What they're not good at is evaluating litigation, unfortunately."
In a hearing last week, Castillo had called the county's ongoing legal fees a "misexpenditure of public funds."
Two former guards, Roger Fairley and Richard Gackowski, filed the lawsuit in 2003 against Sheriff Michael Sheahan and other current or former correctional officers. They alleged that a pattern of harassment and threats forced them to resign when they refused to cover up an alleged jail beating in 2000.
Responding to a question from Castillo, Assistant Cook County State's Atty. Jeffrey McCutchan said Thursday that the county had spent $617,000 on legal fees.
"Cook County taxpayers have paid almost $700,000," Castillo said. He said taking the case to trial would cost the county "probably another $1 million." He said that if the guards win, the county would pay the verdict plus the guards' legal fees. Those fees would likely be more than what the county spent, because bringing and proving a case generally costs more, Castillo said.
McCutchan told Castillo he could not dispute the judge's calculations.
Peter Silvestri, chairman of the Cook County Board's litigation subcommittee, responded Thursday that commissioners decided to fight the case because they were advised they had a strong defense.
He noted that the inmates involved in the alleged beating also filed a civil suit, and the county spent more than $1 million defending it. Earlier this year, a Cook County jury took just one hour to find that seven correctional officers accused in the lawsuit didn't use excessive force.
"We are taking the judge's counsel very seriously," Silvestri said. "But we felt it was in the best interest of the taxpayers that [the lawsuit] be fought. ... We can settle every case but that would only create a situation where everybody would sue the county just to extort money."
Sheahan spokesman Bill Cunningham argued Thursday that "two separate juries have found Fairley and Gackowski to be totally lacking in credibility," referring to the inmates' case and a grand jury that found guards did not use excessive force.
"We agree that it has cost far too much," Cunningham said. "This case should have been dismissed months ago."
The subcommittee held a special meeting last week just to discuss this case, Silvestri said. The county's private lawyers in the federal case are billing at a rate of $185 an hour, far below their regular market rate, Silvestri said.
In court on Thursday, the guards' lawyer Matthew Piers sparred with defense lawyers over whether the defense could mention the earlier verdict in the inmates' case to jurors in the jail guard case.
Castillo ruled that lawyers could refer to the litigation but not the outcome.