Attys, Guards Win Green Light To Advance Sex Conduct Suits

By Emma Cueto | August 18, 2019, 8:02 PM EDT

Two lawsuits that allege Chicago's Cook County allows men in detention to sexually harass female attorneys and guards have reached a major milestone with possible ramifications for thousands of women working in the county's jail facilities.

On Aug. 12, a federal judge agreed to grant the women in both cases class certification, allowing them to bring claims not only for themselves but for all the women allegedly affected. This group potentially includes over 300 public defenders and other female legal staff, and 2,000 female guards.

The two suits — one filed by female guards and one by female public defenders and legal clerks — both describe frequent and disturbing instances of male detainees exposing themselves to women in detention facilities, masturbating in front of them, and threatening more severe sexual violence.

Both groups of women say the Cook County sheriff's department, which is responsible for security in the relevant detention facilities, ignored the women's complaints and didn't take meaningful steps to protect the attorneys and guards. The public defenders also accuse the head of their office of ignoring their concerns.

"I think this is a really significant victory for all the women who work at the Cook County Jail," Ellen Eardley, an attorney for the guards, told Law360. "And I think it's an important #MeToo moment for women who work in corrections throughout the country."

"Unfortunately it's really rare that sexual harassment class actions are certified, so we are very pleased to have overcome this hurdle," Eardley added.

Attorneys for the public defenders told Law360 in an email that they were also pleased with the decision, though they added they would continue to evaluate whether it would be possible to certify a subclass that the judge declined to certify in this ruling. 

"We are humbled to be appointed class counsel and honored to represent the women who have taken a stand against sexual harassment and the sometimes daily indecent exposure and masturbation by criminal court detainees in their workplace," the statement said. 

Both groups of women originally filed suit in November 2017. In court documents, the women say that the problems in Cook County began after the sheriff's department lowered the penalties for indecent exposure by detainees in 2014. The next year, some detainees formed a gang called "Savage Life" that awarded points for masturbation attacks on visitors and staff, court documents say.

Female guards also point to incidents of physical assault, such as being groped or having detainees rub their penises against them, threats of additional sexual violence, and gendered slurs.

Public defenders describe incidents in which groups of men masturbated outside windowed rooms where the attorneys met with their clients, and some cases of being subjected to masturbation attacks by their own clients while in confined spaces.

All of the women say their concerns were not taken seriously. Female guards were allegedly told that this was only to be expected for women working in a jail, and public defenders say they were similarly told to toughen up.

Eardley, who also represented a group of female prison guards in a successful class action suit in Florida with similar claims, said that contrary to these alleged remarks, this type of sexual violence is not the norm in most prisons and jails.

"Most of the people who are in Cook County Jail are not in Cook County Jail for sex offenses," she said. "And they also don't have any type of mental health problem that would tie to this type of behavior."

In facilities where supervisors take these types of incidents seriously, she said, the problems are far less severe.

"It's hard to point to one particular problem, but the overarching issue [in Cook County] is the failure to take adequate steps," Eardley said. For instance, the jail could have been more proactive about issuing "exposure control" jumpsuits for men who have been sexually inappropriate with guards or attorneys, or could have taken away privileges for such behavior.

Some jails and prisons have made preventative changes to their facilities, such as installing one-way glass that allows a detainee to be seen but not to see out, Eardley said.

In Cook County, the judge overseeing both cases, U.S. District Judge Matthew F. Kennelly, issued several preliminary injunctions in November 2017, which required the sheriff's department to preserve any incident reports filed by staff or visitors and instructed the department not to discourage women from filing reports.

The injunctions also required the department to issue exposure control jumpsuits to men with a history of sexual misconduct toward visitors or staff, to use measures such as handcuffing where appropriate to prevent such attacks, and to make changes to the way deputies supervised detainees meeting with attorneys.

In one of the orders granting class certification in August, Judge Kennelly noted that both sides agreed the number of incidents had decreased since the injunctions were issued, but said that they disagreed as to whether the injunctions were the reason things had improved.

Eardley declined to discuss next steps in the litigation. Counsel for the defendants in the two suits did not respond to a request for comment.

--Editing by Aaron Pelc.

Have a story idea for Access to Justice? Reach us at accesstojustice@law360.com.

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