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Cook County Jail guard flunked fitness test, now is suing Sheriff Tom Dart

Denise Hobbs, 59, says she wanted to transfer from being a correctional officer to a courthouse deputy but couldn’t pass the running portion of the test, which she calls discriminatory.

A sergeant leads Cook County sheriff’s correctional officers in physical training.
A sergeant leads Cook County sheriff’s correctional officers in physical training.
Sun-Times file

A former Cook County Jail guard is suing Sheriff Tom Dart for rejecting her bid to become a courthouse deputy because she flunked a fitness test.

Denise Hobbs, 59, says the test constituted age, sex and race discrimination and that the sheriff required it even though an administrative law judge had ruled otherwise.

Hobbs, who has filed suit against Dart in federal court in Chicago, is seeking unspecified damages and a court order blocking the sheriff from administering the test in the future.

Taking the test in July 2019, she failed two parts of the test: completing a 1.5-mile run in under 16 minutes and 52 seconds and doing 24 situps in a minute.

She apparently was able to pass the third part of the test: bench-pressing more than half of her body weight.

She was given a second chance two days later and was able to do the situps but again failed the running portion.

She said she was ordered to go back to work at the jail but retired a few months later.

Hobbs was among 25 people taking part in a training academy for courthouse deputies, including 15 men and 10 women between 30 and 59 years old. Eight, like Hobbs, were Black women, and three were Black men. Six people were rejected from continuing in the academy, including four Black women, one Black man and one white man.

The lawsuit says the test was biased because the standards were the same for everyone despite lower average abilities of older people and women. African Americans over 40 are less likely than whites to pass the test, according to the lawsuit, which also says the fitness exam doesn’t correlate with the duties of a courthouse deputy.

The Illinois Fraternal Order of Police, the union that represents courthouse deputies, agreed to the fitness test, which was administered between 2014 and 2019.

“The sheriff’s office and the FOP share the desire to ensure that physically fit officers fill the deputy positions in court services,” says Matthew Walberg, a spokesman for the sheriff.

Shortly after Hobbs failed in July 2019, the fitness test was eliminated “for reasons totally unrelated to the merits of the test,” according to Walberg.

The Illinois Labor Relations Board found that the sheriff’s agreement with the FOP was invalid because the union for jail guards — the Teamsters — wasn’t part of the deal.

Walberg says Hobbs and the five other guards who failed the test threatened to sue, that the sheriff offered them courthouse jobs and that Hobbs declined and chose to retire.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart.
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart.
Brian Rich / Sun-Times

More than 2,800 corrections officers and 660 court-services deputies work for the sheriff’s office. About 50 deputies transfer from the jail to courthouses each year, but no one is required to take a physical agility test now, according to Walberg.

The Cook County sheriff’s fitness standards.
The Cook County sheriff’s fitness standards.
U.S. District Court

Hobbs, who started work as a Cook County correctional officer in 2007, retired in September 2019.

In her lawsuit, she says she didn’t want to go back to her job as a jail guard because detainees were making her life miserable, masturbating in front of her and other female guards and subjecting them to degrading language.

That’s an issue that’s resulted in separate lawsuits. On Monday, a federal judge approved a $14 million settlement between Cook County and female public defenders and law clerks who sued the sheriff and Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli, saying those officials didn’t do enough to prevent detainees from masturbating in front of them. A lawsuit over the same issue is pending on behalf of guards including Hobbs.

The Cook County Jail near 26th and California.
The Cook County Jail near 26th and California.
Sun-Times file

Unlike the sheriff’s office, the Chicago police nd fire departments don’t require fitness tests once rookie officers and firefighters have graduated from their training academies. But those departments offer bonuses to employees who pass a voluntary test.

The police test has different standards for men and women and officers of different ages. A male cop between 23 and 29 has to run 1.5 miles in under 13 minutes and 46 seconds, but a woman between 40 and 49 must run the same distance in under 17 minutes and 53 seconds. Almost 3,200 officers passed the voluntary test in 2019 and got a $350 bonus.

In 2013, the city agreed to pay nearly $2 million to settle a lawsuit against the Chicago Fire Department on behalf of 187 women who were denied jobs as firefighters because they failed a physical abilities test. Only 20% of women passed, while 90% of men did. The fire department agreed to use a different test approved by the U.S. Justice Department.