COOK COUNTY (CHICAGO)
Cook County hosts roughly two-thirds of Illinois’ major civil litigation, even though only about 40% of the state’s population lives there. Observers consistently tell ATRA that the scales of civil justice have been out of balance there for decades, and no one is holding their breath while waiting for those scales to be leveled.
Cook County’s litigation problems are more diverse than Madison County’s asbestos-focused docket. Though Cook County did place seventh nationwide among jurisdictions with the most asbestos lawsuits in 2015, it’s handling of medical malpractice cases also has many concerned. Deiderich Healthcare’s latest annual data on medical liability payouts show that Illinois again led its Midwest neighbors with $258 million in 2015. That’s $49.7 million more than 2014’s total. So even as the overall number of new claims got smaller, verdicts and settlements are getting bigger, led by what is thought to be the biggest Cook County medical liability verdict in history – for $53 million – against the University of Chicago Medical Center in June 2016 in a case involving a child’s cerebral palsy.
Cook County has also experienced a spike in drive-by lawsuits, often against small businesses, claiming minor technical violations of disability access requirements. ADA lawsuits filed in Chicago’s federal court more than doubled from 44 in 2014 to 94 in 2015, with no signs of slowing down this year. Rather than pay the $10,000 to $20,000 it would cost to fight the lawsuit, real victims like Fabiola Tyrawa, who prides herself on knowing customers at her Chicago coffee shop by name, pay the $5,000 that the lawyers demand to make the lawsuit go away.
After this year’s election, Cook County will have a state’s attorney who did legal consulting work for a personal injury law firm that has filed numerous lawsuits against the county government she will now defend. During Kim Foxx’s campaign, the Chicago Tribune exposed the arrangement Foxx had with the firm, Power Rogers & Smith, and found she received $18,500 in contributions from its lawyers. Now, when the firm files slip-and-falls and other lawsuits against the city, she’ll be negotiating the settlements. Foxx has refused to acknowledge the obvious conflict of interest and vowed not to recuse herself from cases involving the firm, claiming she helped them with medical malpractice and personal injury cases, not lawsuits against the county. And there may be other personal injury firms she worked for, but Foxx ain’t sayin’.
There also has been well-publicized concern about the quality of judges in Cook County. For example, Cook County judges deemed unqualified by the bar have nonetheless been retained in elections again and again. Voters even returned a judge to the bench who was declared legally insane in 2012 (she was later removed by a court commission). Rarely if ever does a Cook County judge not win retention. As the Chicago Tribune asked rhetorically in 2014, “Does this signal that Cook County’s court system has a blue-ribbon bench? No, the court system has some deep-seated problems.”
But as usual, in 2014 and 2015 all Cook County judges were retained, including those found unqualified. The latest major embarrassment CAME THIS PAST Election Day when county voters elected Rhonda Crawford to the bench. Crawford is under indictment for posing as a judge and presiding over traffic cases while she was employed as a law clerk. Her license to practice law has been suspended. Yet Crawford defeated a sitting judge who launched a write-in campaign. But while Crawford was the certified winner of the election, the state supreme court has barred her from taking the bench.
With such poorly qualified judges, ATRA’s Windy City sources say, it is no surprise that many of the expert witnesses allowed to testify there are even worse. Judges perform little to no gatekeeping and juries are often intentionally misled by litigants.
The City of Chicago also has had a hand in poisoning the legal environment with its hiring of out-of-state personal injury lawyers on a contingency-fee basis to run a shakedown lawsuit that’s trying to pin the cost of painkiller abuse on prescription drug manufacturers. Initially filed in 2014, the case was dismissed in May 2015 by a federal judge who found the city had failed to explain how the drug companies allegedly misled the public. But the city was allowed to file an amended complaint and did so in November 2015. While a court has stayed a similar lawsuit in California as the FDA considers how to address concerns about opioid addiction, the Chicago case remains pending.
On a positive note, rare courage recently ended some Cook County home cooking. Cook County Judge Daniel J. Lynch took the rare step of throwing out a $25 million personal injury settlement in 2016 after a courthouse intern (then a law student) reported that she’d overheard a law clerk tipping off a plaintiffs’ lawyer about the contents of a jury note. The note suggested jurors were poised to come back with a defense verdict, and the intern said she heard a clerk for the judge presiding over the case tell one of the plaintiffs’ lawyer what the note said. The clerk waited 27-minutes before informing defense counsel about the jury note, and by that time a fat settlement had been struck between plaintiffs’ attorneys and the defendant’s insurer.
Shortly afterward, the jury did return a defense verdict, but the presiding found it moot in light of the settlement. The intern reported to Judge Lynch that presiding judge’s clerk later told her that she likes to give an advantage to plaintiffs, raising this troubling question: How many other clerks, and even judges, in Cook County like giving advantages to plaintiffs? One can’t help but get the sense that this sentiment is not rare among court staff in Cook County. But what is rare, as Judge Lynch pointed out after he kyboshed the tainted settlement, is the “courage and candor” of the young intern, Ms. Brook Reynolds, who came forward. ATRA wishes this brave young woman all the best in her law career.
Incidentally, ATRA finds interesting the fact that in its October 2016 ratings of judges facing November retention votes, the Chicago Council of Lawyers found Judge Lynch “not qualified.” Even though the council said Judge Lynch is “widely respected for his knowledge of the law and procedure” and “considered to be well prepared and . . . adept at handling long, complex trials,” concerns remain:
Judge Lynch on several occasions has reached beyond his immediate role as judge in a particular matter to engage in legal acts that seem to be outside his normal course of deciding a case before him. These matters include seeking or having sought to have the attorneys prosecuted for fraud or obstruction. In another matter, the judge unsuccessfully sought to have the Cook County State’s Attorney prosecute one of the parties before him. These unorthodox uses of judicial discretion, including criminal contempt charges, are troubling to the Council.
Imagine that, sleazy lawyers don’t like an “unorthodox” judge who acts against and seeks prosecutions of those who perpetrate fraud on our civil justice system. If only more judges behaved so admirably. In any case, voters who share Judge Lynch’s position on lying, cheating and defrauding the courts overwhelmingly returned him to the bench.