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Ex-jail guard sues Sheriff Dart's merit board over firings

Friday, May 19, 2017
Chicago Tribune
by Steve Schmadeke

A former Cook County Jail guard has filed a lawsuit seeking to claw back his firing and dozens of others by Sheriff Tom Dart's merit board after a higher court ruling last week cast doubt on nearly four years of the board's disciplinary decisions. An Illinois appellate court panel last week ruled that Dart and the Cook County Board did not have the power to appoint former merit board member John Rosales to anything less than a six-year term. Rosales was appointed in 2011 to a one-year term and never reappointed, yet remained on the tribunal and joined in its decisions until 2015, according to court records. The higher court's decision came in the case of former deputy Percy Taylor, who sued after the board fired him in 2012. Judge Neil Cohen threw out the board's decision and found that Taylor was owed back pay. An appellate court panel upheld Cohen's reversal and ordered the case be heard again before a "legally constituted" board. Now onetime jail guard Joseph Acevedo has filed a lawsuit asking a judge to reinstate dozens of fired officers and award them back pay because the merit board's firing decisions from June 2011 to April 2015 are allegedly legally void. "The purpose of this lawsuit is to remedy the fact that the sheriff illegally left Rosales on the board," said Acevedo's attorney, Dana Kurtz. "He's the chief law enforcement officer in the county of Cook. … He's required to abide by the statute but didn't." The lawsuit could involve nearly 100 sheriff's employees and include damages of some $15 million, she said. Acevedo has been unable to find work since he was fired, Kurtz said. Dart's office plans to appeal last week's appellate court ruling, said the sheriff's policy chief, Cara Smith. The case has already been before the Illinois Supreme Court, which declined to hear Dart's earlier appeal but asked the lower court to clarify its decision, resulting in last week's ruling. Smith said the merit board's decisions should remain. "The disciplinary process we have in place was sound and we believe the discipline and terminations should stand," she said. According to the lawsuit, which Acevedo's attorneys are asking a judge to certify as a class action, Acevedo had been a correctional officer for nearly 16 years when he was fired in 2015 for allegedly racking up too many unapproved absences between 2012 and 2013. If a judge allows the case to move forward as a class action, all the officers' claims would be consolidated in a single case; if not, each officer must file a separate lawsuit. Dart, the merit board and Cook County government are listed as defendants in the case.

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