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Scary Stuff in Cook County

On Behalf of | Nov 16, 2016 | Case Notes

As Halloween approaches, we present the following ALG Illinois Case Commentary with three articles that seem fitting for this time of year due to their oddness and/or truly frightening results for some of those involved.

Court Clerk who played Judge is likely to be elected as a Real Judge and Stay One.

Over the past two months a story has been unfolding in the Cook County legal community that was shocking to begin with and has proceeded to become genuinely Kafkaesque.

On August 12, 2016, attorney Rhonda Crawford was employed as a law clerk/staff attorney for Cook County Circuit Courts Chief Judge Timothy Evans. However, on that day, Crawford was “shadowing” Judge Valarie Turner to learn how to be a judge. She was doing so because, in March 2016, she won the Democratic primary for the 1st Judicial Subcircuit, and is running unopposed for that judicial seat in the general election on November 8, 2016. While a bit unusual, this shadowing was not improper – at least not until Judge Turner allowed Crawford to don her robes, to sit on her bench and to preside over and rule upon three traffic infraction matters. The judge reportedly stood nearby and observed.

Word of this patent impropriety spread quickly. By August 17, 2016, Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans had suspended Judge Turner from the bench, assigning her to “administrative duties” – colloquially known as “judicial jail.” Evans also suspended Crawford from her job. He fired her nine days later.

A graduate of The University of Chicago Law School, Judge Turner was an Assistant U.S. Attorney for two years before spending the next six at Kirkland & Ellis. She was elected to the bench in 2002 and has been retained twice, with no record of discipline.

Crawford was a registered nurse who graduated from Chicago Kent College of Law in 2003. She had worked as a law clerk/staff attorney for Judge Evans since 2011. In winning the Democratic nomination for her subdistrict, she beat two experienced opponents with 47% of the vote even though she was rated as “not recommended” by every reviewing bar group, and had refused to participate in the evaluation process conducted by any of those groups.

Judge Turner has declined public comment. She remains assigned to administrative duties, making $190,000 to conduct tasks such as reviewing fee waivers and conducting weddings. The Cook County District Attorney has opened investigations into Turner and Crawford, but will not comment on their status. Observers state that removing either of them from the bench would take at least a felony conviction, which is seen as an unlikely result. The Illinois Judicial Inquiry Board (“JIB”) has also reportedly opened an investigation but has declined all comment. If the JIB were to bring sufficient charges and prove them against Turner in a trial before the Illinois Courts Commission, then it would be possible to remover Turner from the bench. However, this too is seen as an unlikely result given the Board’s past history and Illinois’s current funding woes.

Crawford has given public statements, laying the blame squarely on the shoulders of Judge Turner. She has stated that she put on the judicial robes and presided over the three matters “at the urging of a respected judge.” Crawford has further publicly avowed that she will not withdraw her name from the ballot and intends to take office after winning her uncontested judicial election on November 8, 2016. At present, there appears to be nothing to prevent her from taking the bench.

As noted, a felony conviction or successful charge by JIB could do the trick, but those are unlikely. The Illinois Attorney Review and Disciplinary Commission (“ARDC”) has opened an investigation into Crawford. It filed a Complaint against her on October 7, 2016, setting forth counts for “Dishonesty as a result of handling cases on a judges call while dressed in judicial robes and seated on the judge’s chair behind the bench;” for “Criminal conduct of official misconduct and false personation of public officer;” and for “False statements in a disciplinary investigation.” The ARDC could suspend her license to practice law which would prevent her from taking office for the length of the suspension. But even that would likely not be grounds for actual removal from the bench. Bizarrely enough, if Crawford gets elected, she most likely will take the bench at some point and most likely will stay there, drawing a salary of $188,000. Cook County judges, who stand for retention every six years, only need 60% of the vote to be retained and it has been more than 25 years since a sitting judge failed to get 60% of the vote, despite a variety of outrageous behaviors.

On September 7, 2016, Judge Maryam Ahmad, an appointed judge in a different district, announced a write-in campaign for the seat sought by Crawford. Two days later, the Chicago Board of Election announced that Judge Ahmad is ineligible to run because she already lost her Democratic primary in March for a different seat. The Board also announced that a replacement candidate could not be put on the ballot, even if Crawford were to withdraw her name, because the ballots were certified on August 26, 2016.

The only one who seemed to be facing imminent repercussions regarding this affair was Chief Judge Evans. Using this scandal as ammunition, political rivals mounted the first real challenge in more than fifteen years to Evans remaining as Chief Judge. The normally low-key contest became highly charged and politicized with a variety of political, community and religious leaders becoming involved. However, on September 15, 2016, when the dust had settled, Evans was the victor by a vote of 129 – 103.

In the meantime, Judge Ahmad is continuing her write-in campaign. Were Ahmad to somehow become the highest vote-getter on November 8, 2016, while still being ineligible to actually run against the eligible candidate who is under multiple investigations, the only sure result would be further odd and confusing embarrassment for the Cook County judiciary.

Attorney Misconduct Scuttles $25 Million Settlement in Yachting Injury Case.

Scot Vandenberg, et al. v. Brunswick Boat Group, et al., Cook County Case No. 10 L 3188

In September of 2009, the 43-year-old male plaintiff hosted a party cruise on a chartered yacht. During the cruise, he was seated on a portable bench, on the top rear deck, when it tipped backward and he fell, striking a pole on the way down to the bottom deck. The Plaintiff suffered spinal injuries leaving him, after extended hospitalization and multiple surgeries, confined to a wheelchair, paralyzed below the chest, with minimal ability to move his arms and no fine motor control below the elbows. He requires extensive assistance, and is at risk for future complications, with $1 Million in past medical/caretaking costs and approximately $14 Million in future costs.

The injured plaintiff was President/CEO of an ambulance company, but he could not continue working and had to sell his shares, leading to claims for approximately $25 Million lost income/profits. His wife claimed loss of consortium. The Plaintiffs sued for $103 Million, claiming that the yacht was inherently dangerous because of the lack of a guard railing on the edge of the rear upper deck. The manufacturer defendant argued the yacht had been originally built to specifications for a private owner; that the cruise operator failed to update the safety features or to register the boat for commercial use; and that inherent dangers of the upper deck were open and obvious and in an area not intended for passenger use. Before trial began the cruise operator settled for a confidential amount, but remained on the verdict form, thus enabling assertion of an “empty chair” defense. Before trial, the Plaintiffs’ demand was $54 Million and the Defendant’s offer was $25 Million.

The case went to trial in May of 2015. After four weeks, the jury began deliberations. After an hour and a half, the jury sent the judge a note inquiring if they could assign 100% of liability to the “empty chair” defendant. The judge ordered her clerk to contact both sides’ counsel, to tell them of the existence of the note, and to come to court to learn its contents. At this point, things began to get undeniably scary. The clerk told Plaintiffs’ counsel about the note almost immediately but did not call Defendant’s counsel for another 29 minutes. During that time, Defendant’s counsel was called by Plaintiffs’ counsel and the matter settled for $25 Million.

When defense counsel got to court, he first learned of the half hour delay before he had been told of the jury note. Then, the judge did not inform the jury of the settlement but, instead, answered the jury’s question and asked them to continue deliberations. Within five minutes, the jury returned a complete not guilty verdict for the Defendant. Defendant’s counsel moved that verdict be entered and that settlement vacated. Plaintiffs’ counsel strenuously objected.

Six months later, after extensive motion practice, another judge held several days of evidentiary hearing to determine what had occurred and what should be done with the $25 Million settlement and $Zero verdict. Evidence included a memorandum from the trial judge recounting her account of events; testimony by the judge’s clerk Tatiana Agee; testimony by judicial extern/law student Brook Reynolds; testimony by defense counsel; testimony by the Defendant’s insurance adjuster; and testimony by the Plaintiffs’ counsel.

The results would make for compelling television, with testimony from a variety of sources, as well as courthouse phone records, indicating that once the clerk, Agee, learned of the jury’s question, she immediately called and told Plaintiffs’ counsel what the jury had asked; agreed to his request to hold off on telling defense counsel so that he could settle the case; waited almost half an hour to call defense counsel and tell him the jury had a question; told a co-worker that she was holding off on calling defense counsel because she liked to give an edge to plaintiffs in settlement; and then lied to the judge by claiming she had called both sides’ counsel at the same time. Other testimony indicated that, with the above-noted information known only to him, Plaintiffs’ counsel quickly called the Defendant’s insurance adjuster directly and agreed to a settlement of $25 Million even though counsel had just rejected an offer for that amount at the beginning of jury deliberations; and that Plaintiffs’ counsel told the judge that neither he nor defense counsel cared what was in the jury’s note, despite not having even talked to defense counsel.

Although the judge presiding over the evidentiary hearing ultimately did not rule that there was an actual conspiracy between Plaintiffs’ counsel and the court clerk Agee, he did find that their actions put the Defendant at an unfair disadvantage. He also found that it was not credible for Plaintiffs’ counsel to claim that he was unaware that the defense did not know of the jury’s question while he was quickly negotiating the settlement, and that Plaintiffs’ counsel misled them by staying silent about it. This judge also found the clerk, Agee, to have been untruthful in her testimony during the evidentiary hearing. Accordingly, the judge set aside the settlement. He encouraged the parties to try to resolve the matter or else he would be forced to decide whether to enter the jury’s verdict or order a whole new trial.

This past month, with no settlement having been achieved, the court took the next step and entered judgment in complete favor of the defense. Of course this horror show is not yet at an end as the Plaintiffs are appealing.

Drunk Halloween Partier Tries to Slide Down Hotel Bannister, Falls to Her Death, And Family Recovers Millions at Trial

Estate of Megan E. Duskey, deceased v. Hilton Worldwide Inc., Cook County No. 12 L 8230.

A case that made Halloween headlines six years ago has finally come to its legal conclusion.

On October 30, 2010, a 23-year-old school teacher was at the Haunted Halloween Ball on the fourth floor of the Palmer House Hilton Hotel. The hotel restricted entrance to the Ball by having partygoers use a designated route to access the ballroom and by allowing them to use only one specific bank of elevators (with four cars). No specific exit route was designated. Partygoers were allowed to exit through common areas and stairways, but were not allowed to use the main bank of elevators on the fourth floor for egress.

At some point, the teacher and her friends decided to go outside. Unsure as to how to leave, they made their way to the third floor where they were directed down an escalator to the mezzanine level. There were no security guards on that level, where they eventually found a spiral staircase. While allegedly trying to determine a way out, the teacher climbed onto the staircase bannister and fell four floors to her death. She was later determined to have a blood alcohol level of .193.

The estate sued for $16 Million, claiming that the hotel was negligent in failing to identify the spiral staircase as a safety risk to attendees who would be dressed in costumes with masks that could impair eyesight and footwear which could impair movement, and by failing to take into account that partygoers could be drunk which impaired coordination, balance and judgment, which thus increased the risk of falling on stairways. The estate also claimed that the hotel failed to provide the safest means for attendees to exit, via elevators, and also failed to post warnings against using the spiral staircase which would be dangerous to drunken partygoers. The defense claimed that the planning was proper and that the deceased was the sole cause of her own death by deciding to drink, doing so to excess, and trying to slide down a bannister four stories up.

At trial, the Plaintiffs’ settlement demand was $4.7 Million and the Defendant offered $330,000. During trial, the court struck the affirmative defense of comparative negligence due to non-compliance with motion in limine rulings. With a verdict that should put a scare into defendants everywhere, or at least those who might find themselves haled into a Cook County Circuit Court, the jury returned a verdict of $4 Million against the hotel.


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