Three former Lake County employees who claimed they were fired by County Clerk Erin Cartwright Weinstein because they backed her opponent in the 2016 election were given more than $2.6 million by a jury.
After beating incumbent clerk Keith Brin in a 2016 election, Weinstein took office in December. One of his first actions was to fire three of Brin’s previous senior lieutenants: Michelle Higgins, Tiffany Deram, and Joshua Smothers.
The jury’s decision on Friday indicated they felt Weinstein fired the employees because they weren’t on her side, according to attorney Paul Vickrey, even though Weinstein and the county attorneys provided several justifications for doing so over the six days of trial testimony.
Vickrey noted that the jury’s decision boosted the number of punitive damages for each of the three plaintiffs to $75,000 from the $50,000 they had requested, adding, “I think the jury was sending a message.”
Vickrey stated that hardworking, qualified government employees shouldn’t have to fear losing their jobs every four years for expressing their First Amendment rights on their own time. Weinstein refuted claims that the dismissals were related to the employees’ support for Brin in an email answer to queries on Monday.
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Weinstein wrote, “I am unhappy with the decision. “I would never let someone go because they backed my rival. I acted in a way that I thought would benefit my administration the most. Currently, the attorney general’s office is examining the viability of an appeal while working on post-trial motions.
Attorney General Kwame Raoul’s spokesman declined to comment on the situation. Before they were let go, Higgins, Deram, and Smothers strongly promoted Brin. Records in the case show that during the campaign, Weinstein, her husband, or Weinstein’s top deputy, Donna Hamm, had observed the three employees participating in parades alongside Brin or at other political events.
When she was sacked in December 2016, Higgins had been employed by the clerk’s office since 1985 and served as the division’s chief for the criminal courts. The dream was the vice chief of the records section and had been employed by the company since 1998.
Smothers oversaw the Round Lake branch court and has been employed by the clerk since 2007. The three had argued that political agreement with the clerk was an invalid employment requirement and that neither of their positions required them to make policy judgments.
According to court filings, Weinstein acknowledged in depositions that she did not study the employees’ personnel files before instructing them to take out their desks and that she had spoken to the county human resources department about terminating the workers the week before she assumed office.
Higgins earned $1.1 million, Deram $1 million, and Smothers $542,000 in total, which includes punitive penalties, damages for pain and suffering, lost income, and pension. In 2020, Weinstein was elected to another term as clerk.