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Class action: Hundreds of Cook Sheriff officer suspensions invalid, because State's Attorney not involved

Friday, October 05, 2018
Cook County Record
by Jonathan Bilyk

Class action: Hundreds of Cook Sheriff officer suspensions invalid, because State's Attorney not involved

Jonathan Bilyk

Cook County’s Sheriff and State’s Attorney may both face a proposed class action brought by a suspended Cook County correctional officer, who claims the disciplinary action against him and similar actions against all officers disciplined by the sheriff since 2016 should be tossed out because the sheriff’s office wasn't represented in the disciplinary proceedings by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office.

On Oct. 2, plaintiff Anthony J. Squeo, identified as a sergeant employed by the sheriff’s office, filed suit in Cook County Circuit Court through his attorney Cass Casper, of Chicago, asking the court to throw out a 45-day suspension meted out to Squeo by the Cook County Sheriff’s Merit Board in July 2017.

According to a report attached to the complaint, Squeo was accused of using excessive force on an inmate at the Cook County Jail.

However, in the complaint, Squeo asserts the suspension should not be considered legally valid.

Squeo’s case comes amid a spate of similar lawsuits against Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart and the sheriff’s Merit Board, the panel empowered to review disciplinary actions against Cook County Sheriff’s officers.

The lawsuits were sparked in 2017 in the wake of a decision by the Illinois First District Appellate Court in Taylor v Dart, which established some members of the Merit Board had been improperly appointed. Under state law, the members of the Merit Board are supposed to be appointed to 6-year terms. The court determined some of those members had ben impermissibly appointed to interim terms, in violation of the law.

The court determined it meant at least one disciplinary action meted out by the Merit Board could be vacated. And the lawsuits have asserted many more should also be undone.

To date, courts have largely taken a dim view of that position, particularly in light of actions taken by Illinois lawmakers and the sheriff, who have argued in court they have remedied the legal shortcomings identified in the Taylor decision.

In his lawsuit, Squeo similarly notes the disciplinary proceedings against him were launched at a time when the Merit Board was considered to be out of compliance with the law. And, he argued, like in Taylor, his suspension should be considered invalid.

However, Squeo’s complaint also levels additional accusations.

In his case, he noted the sheriff’s office was represented before the Merit Board by “disciplinary officers” or “assistant general counsels” from the sheriff’s office. Squeo’s lawyers assert this representation also violates state law, as, they claim the law requires the sheriff to be represented by an attorney from the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office in such proceedings.

“The Sheriff has been made aware of the problem on numerous occasions by motions to disqualify his internal Sheriff' s staff based on the illegalities identified in this Complaint, all of which have gone unheeded by the Sheriff,” the lawsuit asserts. “The Sheriff has also been aware of immense problems with his disciplinary board through the Taylor litigation and its fallout, but has continued, with reckless disregard and/or deliberate indifference to applicable laws, to fail to properly oversee and administer proceedings at the Board.

“Hundreds of officers have been suspended without pay pending Board hearings, and/or suspended as a result of Board action while the administration of proceedings at the Board is- again- improper and illegal,” the Squeo complaint asserts.

In his complaint, Squeo claims this has been ongoing since 2016, and should serve to invalidate all disciplinary actions meted out by the Merit Board against sheriff’s officers since that time.

The complaint estimates a court finding in their favor should invalidate disciplinary actions taken against 300 or more Cook County sheriff’s officers.

The complaint asks the court to order the county to pay suspended officers for the time they were suspended, as well.

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