CHICAGO — Earlier this year, the Cook County Board of Commissioners voted to approve two settlements, totaling more than $1.2 million, for a former county court reporter who brought two lawsuits against the county, one in 2019 and another the following year.
Helen Miller, a court reporter for more than a decade, alleged that she was subjected to four years of sexual harassment by two sheriff’s deputies who were also assigned to the Skokie courthouse. After she reported the harassment, she claimed, the investigation went nowhere and she was later fired — illegally — from her job with the county.
“When I look back on it, I can’t believe I lived through that. I can’t believe, with the integrity I have as a woman, that I took it,” said Miller, who left the Chicago area earlier this year and moved to Georgia.
But while Miller left the state to put the ordeal behind her, one of the deputies she accused of harassment remains on the job, and the other since retired and is collecting his taxpayer-funded pension while facing a federal gun charge. All but one of the supervisors who apparently mishandled her complaint and subsequent firing remain on the job. “None of the people who were the cause of what happened to me, they are not being punished at all,” Miller told WGN Investigates. “It’s really the taxpayers that getting punished.”
Miller alleged that the county “ignored the harassment” from both deputies, who each denied any wrongdoing and were later cleared by internal investigators in the sheriff’s office. The alleged harassment, though, led to Miller’s diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“The men degradingly boasted how they would have sex with her until she could not walk any longer, openly talked about anal sex, and otherwise created an intolerable and offensive environment for Ms. Miller,” her first lawsuit alleged.
With her PTSD diagnosis, Miller opted to take a medical leave from her job with the county. While away, though, the county fired her because she took another job as a part-time court reporter. Her firing — which was illegal, she alleged — was the basis of her initial lawsuit. In 2020, Miller filed another, separate lawsuit against the two deputies.
Last March, the county sought to have Miller’s wrongful termination lawsuit thrown out. The federal judge overseeing the case disagreed, however, ruling that the Office of Chief Judge Tim Evans’ “response to [Miller’s] complaint about [the deputies] was apathetic and not reasonably likely to prevent the harassment from recurring.” A spokesperson for Judge Evans declined to say whether any employees were disciplined their handling of Miller’s case.
In September, the Cook County Board of Commissioners voted to approve settling both cases for just over $1.2 million. Board President Toni Preckwinkle and several other commissioners approached by WGN Investigates all declined to speak about the settlements paid to Miller.
Reached by phone, one of the deputies declined to speak about Miller’s allegations. The other deputy, who since retired from the sheriff’s office, was charged earlier this year with violating federal gun laws. His attorney in that case — which is still pending — did not respond to requests for comment.
Meanwhile, the Cook County Board of Commissioners signaled last week that more expensive lawsuit settlements are coming down the pike.
The board’s 17 commissioners — four of whom are leaving their posts — unanimously approved the county’s $8.8 billion budget for the next fiscal year. Among the items in budget is the county’s “self-insurance fund,” money from which is used to pay for worker’s compensation and other liability claims — including settlements for lawsuits involving the county. The money in the self-insurance fund comes from the county’s various departments, which are each required to pay a monthly premium that goes into the self-insurance fund.
The self-insurance fund has greatly fluctuated in recent years, and that variety is set to continue next year. In the 2022 fiscal year, the self-insurance fund budget was just shy of $50 million. In 2023, the fund will more than double in size, reaching $112 million. Annette Guzman, the county’s budget director, told reporters last week that the large year-over-year increase is largely attributable to the lengthy delays imposed on the county’s court operations by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We anticipate that a number of settlements will be coming up in FY23 that were delayed over the past two years because of the pandemic and the activities within the court system, and so we have fully funded the self-insurance fund based on that fact for FY23,” Guzman said.