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After winning lawsuit, fired sheriff's officer returns to work

Monday, December 04, 2017
Chicago Tribune
by Elvia Malagon

Dixie Rios had butterflies in her stomach Monday morning as she walked into the Cook County sheriff's office on the city's Southwest Side following a judge's order last week to reinstate her.

Rios, fired in 2014 only to file a lawsuit and win her job back, said she was determined to return to work. Rios was training to become a patrol officer for the sheriff’s police department, which handles law enforcement duties in unincorporated stretches of Cook County, at the time she was fired.

"I worked hard to pretty much gain the status where I was at at the time, and I just refuse to let someone bully me," Rios told reporters outside one of the sheriff’s central offices in the 2600 block of South California Avenue.

Rios, who has worked in the sheriff’s office since 2005, was terminated amid allegations she passed along a jailhouse threat from her brother, an alleged high-ranking gang member, sheriff’s officials said. She maintained Monday that she never passed along the threat.

Rios sued to get her job back. And on Friday, Cook County Judge Diane Larson sided with her — reversing Rios’s firing, awarding her $300,000 in back pay and ordering Sheriff Tom Dart to give Rios her job back.

While the sheriff’s office said Monday it will ask the courts to reconsider the decision to hand Rios her job back, the case underscores several legal blows dealt this year toDart’s personnel board — known formally as the Sheriff's Merit Board — which handles hirings, firing and other disciplinary matters. Rios had sued, in part, over the makeup of the board. In a separate but similar lawsuit, another fired sheriff’s officer took aim at the merit board. That case reached the state’s appellate court, which earlier this year determined the board was “illegally constituted” because of two apparent mistakes made in succession over the appointment of one of its members. Ultimately, the courts determined that, because of those errors, all of the board’s decisions between 2011 and 2015 were void.

If hundreds of other officers ousted during that period follow suit, taxpayers could be on the hook for millions of dollars in back pay.

The sheriff's office had fully expected Rios to report to the human resources department Monday, but a spokesperson says it still plans to appeal her reinstatement.

"Her return to work will be uneventful and will not interfere with the operations of this office or the criminal justice system," said Cara Smith, chief policy officer for the sheriff's office, in a prepared statement. "The judge's order, we believe, was incorrect and exceeded her authority in the relief provided. We are filing a motion to reconsider her ruling this morning and to request clarification.”

Rios had been promoted four times before the charges were brought against her on the merit board, she said.

While talking to reporters Monday, she laughed at the characterization of her brother as a high-ranking gang member, though she did say he had a past that involved drugs. Before her dismissal, Rios said she had complained to her superiors about a form she was told to fill out asking her to list any relatives with gang affiliations, because she worried that her brother's past could have an impact on future promotions.

For now, Dart has halted 200-plus misconduct cases pending before his merit board, while officials await a legislative fix to the appointment mess. A Cook County judge Monday held off on a motion to shut down the merit board in another case after the sheriff’s office presented evidence that it had canceled Thursday’s hearing dates. The judge could rule in January.

Legislation that would allow the reappointment of the entire board is awaiting Gov. Bruce Rauner’s signature. Multiple legal challenges to the board’s firing decisions are pending.

Contributing: Steve Schmadeke

Twitter @elviamalagon


Sheriff Tom Dart’s personnel board halts firings, suspensions amid legal questions »

Sheriff Dart asks judge not to award back pay to fired officers »

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