A jury decided in favor of three former workers of Lake County, who alleged that they were terminated from their jobs by County Clerk Erin Cartwright Weinstein because they backed her opponent in the 2016 election. The jury’s award was greater than $2.6 million.
After beating the incumbent clerk Keith Brin in the election held in December 2016, one of the first things that Harvey Weinstein did after being elected was to dismiss three of Brin’s former senior deputies. These individuals were Michelle Higgins, Tiffany Deram, and Joshua Smothers.
During the six days of trial testimony, both Weinstein and the county attorneys offered a variety of reasons for terminating the three workers. However, the verdict that was returned on Friday showed that the jurors believed Weinstein fired the workers because they weren’t on her team, according to the attorney who represented Weinstein, Paul Vickrey.
“I think the jury was sending a message,” Vickrey said Monday, noting that the sum of punitive damages for each of the three plaintiffs had been upped by the jurors’ verdict to $75,000, up from the $50,000 that the plaintiffs had requested.
According to Vickrey, “dedicated and capable public servants should not be had to worry about losing their jobs every four years for expressing their First Amendment rights on their own personal time.”
Weinstein refuted in an email response to inquiries sent to him on Monday that the terminations were related to the employees’ support for Brin.
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Weinstein stated in his letter, “I am profoundly unhappy at the ruling.” “I would never fire someone from their job because they supported my opponent. I acted in a manner that I considered to be in the administration’s best interest at the time. The office of the Attorney General is currently working on post-trial motions and is investigating the potential of appealing the verdict.
The office of Attorney General Kwame Raoul has declined to comment on the matter, according to a spokeswoman for the office.
During the months leading up to their dismissal, Higgins, Deram, and Smothers were all quite active in campaigning for Brin. According to the evidence in the case, Weinstein, her husband, or Donna Hamm, Weinstein’s top deputy, had observed the three workers marching in parades behind Brin or at other political events over the course of the campaign. Also present at these occasions was Brin.
Higgins had been employed by the clerk’s office since 1985, and at the time of her termination in December 2016, she held the position of chief of the criminal court’s division. Deram held the position of deputy chief of the records section at the office, where he had worked continuously since 1998. Since 2007, Smothers had been employed by the clerk and had risen through the ranks to become the supervisor of the Round Lake branch court. The three had maintained that their duties did not involve making choices regarding policy, and therefore maintaining a political alignment with the clerk was not a legal condition for the position they held.
According to the court records, Weinstein admitted during depositions that she had consulted the county human resources department about firing the employees the week before she took office. However, she stated that she did not review their personnel files before instructing them to clean out their desks.
Higgins was awarded $1.1 million in damages, while Deram was given $1 million, and Smothers was given $542,000 after taking into account punitive damages, compensation for pain and suffering, lost income, and pension. In 2020, Weinstein was successful in securing a second term as clerk.