Jury awards $2.6 million to fired Lake County circuit court clerk workers

Three former employees said they were let go the day after Erin Cartwright Weinstein took office in 2016 because they supported her opponent.

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The Lake County court complex in downtown Waukegan, Ill. A federal jury last week awarded $2.6 million in damages to three former Clerk’s Office workers who claimed they were wrongfully fired the day after Clerk Erin Cartwright Weinstein took office.

A federal jury last week awarded $2.6 million in damages to three former Lake County Clerk’s Office workers who claimed they were wrongfully fired the day after Clerk Erin Cartwright Weinstein took office.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the office held by Lake County Circuit Court Clerk Erin Cartwright Weinstein.

A jury awarded more than $2.6 million to three former Lake County employees who claimed they were fired by Circuit Court Clerk Erin Cartwright Weinstein because they supported her opponent in the 2016 election.

One of Weinstein’s first acts after taking office in December 2016, after defeating incumbent Keith Brin, was to fire three of Brin’s former top deputies — Michelle Higgins, Tiffany Deram and Joshua Smothers.

While Weinstein and the county attorneys offered multiple reasons for terminating the three during six days of trial testimony, the verdict returned Friday showed jurors believed Weinstein fired the workers because they weren’t on her team, attorney Paul Vickrey said.

“I think the jury was sending a message,” Vickrey said Monday, noting jurors’ award increased the amount of punitive damages for each of the three plaintiffs to $75,000 from the $50,000 they had requested.

“Dedicated, competent civil servants should not have to worry about losing their jobs every four years for exercising their First Amendment rights on their own personal time,” Vickrey said.

In an email response to questions Monday, Weinstein denied the firings were tied to the workers’ support for Brin.

“I am very disappointed in the verdict,” Weinstein wrote. “I would never terminate someone’s employment for supporting my opponent. I did what I believed was in the best interest of my administration. The attorney general’s office is currently working on post-trial motions, and reviewing the possibility of an appeal.”

A spokeswoman for Attorney General Kwame Raoul declined to comment on the case.

Higgins, Deram and Smothers had actively campaigned for Brin in the months before they were fired. Weinstein, her husband or Weinstein’s top deputy, Donna Hamm, had seen the three workers marching in parades alongside Brin or at other political events throughout the campaign, according to records in the case.

Higgins had worked in the clerk’s office since 1985 and was chief of the criminal courts division when she was fired in December 2016. Deram, who had worked in the office since 1998, was deputy chief of the records division. Smothers, who had worked for the clerk since 2007, was supervisor of the Round Lake branch court. The three had argued that their jobs did not involve making policy decisions and that political alignment with the clerk was not a valid job requirement.

In depositions, Weinstein admitted that she had consulted the county human resources department about firing the employees the week before she took office, and that she did not review their personnel files before telling them to clean out their desks, according to court records.

Including punitive damages, compensation for pain and suffering, lost wages and pension, Higgins was awarded $1.1 million; Deram received $1 million; and Smothers $542,000. Weinstein won a second term as clerk in 2020.

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