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Deputy wins discrimination lawsuit

Lake County Sheriff officer Heather Aldridge works with police dog this 2006 file photo. Aldridge Lake Bluff wlawsuit against Lake

Lake County Sheriff officer Heather Aldridge works with a police dog in this 2006 file photo. Aldridge of Lake Bluff won a lawsuit against the Lake County Sheriff's Office for gender discrimination. | Sun-Times Media file

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Updated: March 14, 2014 8:03AM

A deputy who filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against the Lake County Sheriff’s Office is back on the job this week after winning in court.

A jury in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois Eastern Division ruled that Heather Aldridge, 50, of Lake Bluff, was discriminated against because she was a woman and awarded her $750,000 for emotional pain and mental anguish, said her attorney Catherine Simmons-Gill.

“The jury had a very strong opinion in this case,” she said, “They felt $300,000 was not enough,” she continued, noting that under Title 7, which was the section the lawsuit was brought under, the highest award a jury can make is $300,000.

Simmons-Gill said she expects it to be reduced, but there are still attorney fees, consideration of whether Aldridge deserves back pay and additional punitive damages. A judge must also rule whether she will be reinstated to the canine unit.

Issues about sexual harassment and a hostile work environment were dismissed by U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan Cox before the trial, which focused on just the gender discrimination.

Aldridge had worked for the sheriff’s office since 1997, and two years later she got her dream job being named to the canine unit. But when her dog partner Grainger was retired in 2009 along with Deputy Jill Garross’ dog, Riggs, after 10 years of service, the two were told to “reapply” even though past practice with male deputies was to just assign them a new dog.

She complained to Sheriff Mark Curran about reapplying and she was reinstated to the unit. Her attorney said Aldridge had good performance reviews every year throughout her career, until she was back on the canine unit again.

But then she was disciplined and received reprimands for various work infractions, according to the suit. Aldridge was regularly disciplined and subjected to warnings for failing to show up for training, showing up late or leaving early. Her male counterparts were not subjected to that discipline, Aldridge said, adding that she also was denied training other male deputies received, the suit states.

In one incident, she was allegedly disciplined for not showing up at canine training Nov. 14, 2009, but she contends she was there. She said trainers advised her to take her canine home because he was vomiting and had diarrhea. Aldridge claims she spent the rest of training time cleaning the squad car and was later cited for “theft of overtime.”

She also said she was written up for taking sick time after being hospitalized in 2009, for failing to hear a dispatch call, and for not video-taping a traffic stop when her squad didn’t have a video camera, according to the suit.

Aldridge said she also was disciplined for failing to issue an adequate number of citations in January 2010. She contends that she issued more than 40, but her superior didn’t count all of them because she had switched shifts.

One of the odder incidents cited in lawsuit is related to a plastic coyote used to scare away geese on school property in Rondout, located in unincorporated Lake County near Lake Bluff, which got her demoted off the canine unit.

She said she went to the school because of a complaint of a dead or injured dog or coyote. When she arrived about 6 p.m. Jan. 10, 2010, she found a broken plastic coyote that she placed in the trunk of her car. Aldridge said she offered to return the broken one, but the principal declined. Later, Aldridge was cited for failing to enter the broken coyote into evidence and theft of the broken coyote. She was also accused of being rude to the principal.

As a result, she was suspended for three days, demoted and removed from the canine squad, according to the lawsuit.

Her attorney said the other issues, like back pay, will be decided in the future.

“In due course everything will be decided,” she said. “She’s very happy, she went back to work Monday in the highway patrol division.”

There is only one canine officer and his dog existing today, there had been as many as five at one time.

The sheriff’s office is represented by attorneys James DeAno and Debra Ann Harvey of DeAno & Scarry, LLC, and they were not immediately available for comment.

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