CHICAGO (CN) - The Cook County Sheriff's Office may be entitled to immunity from some claims filed by former corrections officers whom the office investigated for allegedly assisting in a 2006 jailbreak.
Six prisoners escaped from the abnormal-behavior observation unit of the Cook County Jail when inmate Patrell Doss overpowered a jail guard named Darin Gater. After temporarily blinding Gater with cleaning solution, Doss changed into Gater's uniform, released other inmates and started a diversionary fire.
While the prisoners made their way toward the exit, the disguised Doss convinced other jail guards to open internal doors. Then Doss beat the guards and took their keys. Authorities quickly recaptured the escapees in the Chicago area.
The sheriff's office immediately suspected foul play, and Gater admitted to being one of several officers complicit in the escape.
Each of the six targets of the office's investigation belonged to an elite, 20-member security unit. In addition to the three accomplices whom Gater named, suspicion fell on two other two officers who were on duty, but away from their posts, when the jailbreak occurred. A sixth officer implicated in the investigation was the shift commander the shift immediately preceding the jailbreak; he had left the jail about an hour and a half before the melee.
Five of the six plaintiffs were suspended without pay almost immediately. They claim they were detained under guard for up to 24 hours, while being denied food, water and sleep. Several claimed they were discouraged from contacting a union steward or attorney.
After transferring all of the suspects, all six were brought up on administrative charges and their unit was disbanded. Three found to have violated their professional duties were suspended or forced out. Charges could not be sustained against the remaining three.
The six disgraced officers sued Cook County Sheriff's Office, claiming that the investigation and sanctions were leveled in retaliation for complaints they had made about jail safety conditions and prison politics. They also filed state-law false imprisonment and emotional distress claims.
Central to their case was a claim that their political leanings put them at odds with prison administrators responsible for the investigation. They said they were targeted for actively supporting Richard Remus, a candidate for Cook County Sheriff who had challenged, Tom Dart, the incumbent sheriff's chief of staff.
Two other guards who were on duty at the time of the jailbreak were not investigated, which the plaintiffs claimed illustrated the office's ulterior motives. The sheriff's office responded that those other officers had been violently subdued, indicating they had not participated.
The defendants, leaders of the sheriff's office, claimed qualified immunity and statutory immunity from the state law claims under the Illinois Local Government and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act. They requested a dismissal, which was never ruled on, and then moved for summary judgment on the theory of qualified immunity.
U.S. District Judge Ronald Guzman granted summary judgment on the workplace retaliation complaints, finding speech relating to an employee's official duties is not subject to First Amendment protection.
"In complaining about overcrowding, the lack of supervision and the need for Plexiglas, the plaintiffs were acting pursuant to their duties," Guzman wrote.
But, Guzman found, the sheriff's officials had failed to sufficiently argue a qualified immunity defense on the political retaliation claims, preventing summary judgment. He had found that the defendants waived immunity by failing to properly argue for it.
The 7th Circuit reversed in part Thursday and remanded for reconsideration.
"It is certainly true that the discussion in their opening memorandum in support of summary judgment left much to be desired, but this is not the same as saying that it evinces a relinquishment of the qualified immunity defense," Judge Richard Cudahy wrote for the court's three-judge panel.
Even if the sheriff's officials deficiently argued for immunity at the outset, they supplemented their position in a more-developed, four-page reply brief.
"In their summary judgment filings, it was unambiguous that the defendants were arguing that they were entitled to qualified immunity, even if inexpertly," Cudahy wrote. "While we do not condone the defendants' failure to present their argument fully at what they must have known would be a critical moment in the litigation, as a matter of law their oversight in this case does not amount to a waiver."
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