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South suburban Chicago mayor sued by ex-employees claiming they were wrongfully fired

Dolton mayor sued by employees who claim wrongful termination
Dolton mayor sued by employees who claim wrongful termination 00:24

DOLTON, Ill. (CBS) -- Dolton Mayor Tiffany Henyard was facing a series of lawsuits Thursday from former employees who allege wrongful termination.

The three separate lawsuits were announced Thursday by attorneys from Lisle-based Custardo Law LLC, who said in a news release that the suits were filed the day before.

The ex-village employees claim the Village of Dolton and Thornton Township – of which Henyard is supervisor – terminated the employment of several staffers without just cause or due process. Attorneys claimed the mayor violated state and federal employment laws and the staffers' constitutional rights.

One lawsuit was filed by former Thornton Township human resources manager Sandra Tracy, who claimed she was retaliated against after she refused to put together a list with the "dirt" on township employees. Tracy also claimed she was retaliated against for taking leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) – and was locked out of the township building and made to work out of her car in the parking lot for six months, attorneys alleged.

Tracy was fired after she complained that the township had failed to pay her for six weeks, attorneys alleged.

A second lawsuit was filed by Karen Johnson, a former administrative assistant in the Dolton Department of Public Works, who claimed she was retaliated against for refusing to do political campaign work during hours when Henyard was facing an ultimately unsuccessful recall in 2022 – and claimed she was fired for reading a negative news article about Henyard while at work.

Samysha Williams, former director of the Dolton Building Permits and Licenses Department, claimed she was fired for refusing to withhold permits for Dolton business owners who did not make political contributions to Henyard, for refusing to suppress Freedom of Information Act requests when Henyard asked, and for taking FMLA leave. Attorneys alleged that while Williams was on approved leave, Henyard had a Dolton police officer go to her home and personally hand her a termination letter.

"We believe that the Village and Township's actions, under Mayor Henyard's direction, were unjust, unfair, and unlawful," Matthew R. Custardo, attorney for the former employees, said in a news release. "Our clients were devoted public servants and they deserved better.  Instead, they were bullied, intimidated, and kicked to the curb. But they're fighting back."

The lawsuits seek compensatory damages for lost wages, emotional distress, and reputational harm as a result of the wrongful terminations, as well as injunctive relief, attorneys said.

CBS 2 has reached out to Henyard for comment, but she had not yet responded late Thursday.

In separate complaint, employee claims retaliation after alleged sexual assault

Meanwhile, in a separate complaint to the Illinois Department of Human Rights last month, another Dolton village and Thornton Township employee alleged she had attended a conference in Las Vegas last year as a member of Henyard's staff – and had gone out on the last day of the conference with an unnamed Dolton village trustee whom she thought of as an "uncle."

This employee alleged she was later told the trustee had had unprotected sex with her during a time when she was blacked out.

The complaint alleged that while out with the trustee, the employee felt disoriented and light-headed in a way that would not have been consistent with alcohol consumption. She still felt light-headed when they returned to the hotel where the group was staying, and she then blacked out and did not remember anything else, the complaint alleged.

The employee said the following morning, she found herself in the trustee's hotel room fully dressed – and could not find her wallet, the complaint alleged. She contacted a Dolton police officer who was working on Henyard's security detail and recounted the situation – out of concern that she could not find her ID and now had to travel home, the complaint alleged. The officer tried to help, but the employee recounted the situation and nothing else, the complaint alleged.

After arriving back in Dolton, the employee claimed she was contacted by the officer, who told her the trustee had reported having unprotected sex with her, the complaint alleged. The employee asked for a meeting with Henyard to advise the mayor what she believed had happened – and how she was now not comfortable being near township and village offices, the lawsuit alleged.

During a meeting with Henyard and the officer, the employee said she never would have willingly had sex with the trustee, the complaint alleged. Henyard asked the officer what he knew, and the officer said the trustee had told him about engaging in sexual activity with the employee – with some suggestion that the employee might not have consented or had the ability to do so, the complaint alleged.

The officer told Henyard and the employee that he had begun to record the call once he believed there might have been an issue with consent, the complaint alleged. The trustee then Facetimed the officer, who said the trustee had his shirt off and seemed to have exerted himself, the complaint alleged.

The complaint alleged the officer said the trustee "then panned the camera toward a bed where the officer could see a woman who was partially dressed, and who appeared to be the Dolton/Thornton employee," and alleged the officer reported "[t]he trustee then moved the camera to various private areas of the woman's body, displaying them on screen at times moving or removing articles of clothing."

The officer said he did not know why the trustee contacted him other than to brag, the complaint alleged.

Henyard then told the employee that if this information got out, "Henyard would be ruined and all the work she had done would be lost," the complaint alleged. Henyard asked the employee if that was what she wanted to come out of this, the complaint alleged.

The employee said she did not want to hurt Henyard, or ruin the projects the mayor had begun, but she also did not want to be around the trustee, the complaint alleged. Henyard indicated that she would take care of it, and did not discuss the matter further, the complaint alleged.

Days later, the employee was put on leave despite not requesting it – and she found out the leave was not paid leave, the complaint alleged. When asked if she could return to work, she was told she could not return without a doctor saying it was appropriate, the complaint alleged.

The employee asked what kind of doctor would be needed and what a note would have to say, but she did not get an answer, and she was "effectively terminated," the complaint alleged.

This complaint, filed by attorneys Robert D. Sweeney and Nicole E. DiOrio of the firm Sweeney, Scharkey & Blanchard LLC, said the employee had suffered the loss of her employment and other damages as a result of retaliation and sexual assault and harassment.

Officer involved in case also files retaliation complaint

The officer involved in the situation also filed a complaint – claiming that he too was retaliated against for reporting "potentially actionable conduct" in the form of possible non-consensual sex between the trustee and the employee.

The officer claimed, within days of the meeting with Henyard and the employee, he was removed from the mayor's security detail and sent back to patrol duty. Then, when members of Henyard's security detail came to the police station to bring leftover food from an event, the officer said he tried to make small talk with the security detail members – only to be told they could not communicate with him per the mayor's orders, the complaint alleged.

The officer also claimed he ran into the trustee at a Halloween event – and while they did not exchange words, the officer was told the mayor would also soon be coming, and he himself would have to leave and go on patrol, the complaint alleged. The officer told his supervisors what had happened, and suggested there was a concerted effort to keep him away from Henyard and the trustee, the complaint alleged.

The next day, the Dolton police command staff told him he had to attend a meeting with leadership, and he had to bring his police badge and ID with him, the complaint alleged. He said he would file retaliation charges if "adverse employment action" were taken against him, the complaint alleged.

The officer was later told by a union representative that he would only receive an oral reprimand for how he communicated with his superior by text, the complaint alleged. But he was later subjected to criticism by his peers for "various behaviors" such as not writing enough tickets and remaining on an on-duty roster for a different municipality, the complaint alleged.

On New Year's Day this year, the officer was involved in an accident, in which someone hit his squad car during a call and arrest, and he was injured to the point where he had to go to the ER for back and neck pain, the complaint alleged. The emergency room said he could not return to duty for three days, and when that period was up, he was told he had to report to work with just over an hour's notice – despite that day, Jan. 4, being his regular day off, the complaint alleged.

The officer returned to work, where he was told he could sit at a desk and perform "light-duty" work, the complaint alleged. The officer found himself in pain while sitting in the chair, but the chief of police said he was "fine" and would be "all right" while making a dismissive gesture, the complaint alleged.

But as time went on, the pain got worse and the officer had to go to the ER again, the complaint alleged. The officer was told at the hospital that he should not return to work until Jan. 9, and days later, his primary care physician said he should not return to active duty until Jan. 23, the complaint alleged. But on Jan. 9, the officer was told he was to go to the "company doctor" the next morning, and it could be "very bad" for him if he did not go, the complaint alleged.

He went to the company doctor, only to be sent home with a letter stating they could not see him based on the note from his primary care doctor, the complaint alleged.

The officer alleged he was demoted, passed over for promotions, subjected to reprimands, called in from his injured-on-duty leave, and otherwise harassed in violation of the Illinois Human Rights Act.

Dolton Mayor Henyard's past controversies

Henyard had already been the subject of controversy before she became mayor in 2021. In January of that year, she gave away free gas at a Food 4 Less in Dolton in what was billed as a kickoff to her mayoral campaign.

Some legal experts said at the time that if the gas giveaway didn't cross the legal line, it stood right on it.

Back in 2019, Henyard was also the subject of a CBS 2 investigation, after one of her former tenants accused the village trustee of failing to remedy a massive mold problem in a Section 8 house she owns – which raised even more concerns about the house's inspection history.

But Henyard won 82 percent of the vote in the 2021 Dolton mayoral race, compared with 18 percent for challenger Ronnie Burge.

Residents voted to recall Henyard in June 2022. But the mayor took her fight to court – and won in a lower court. The Illinois Appellate Court later ruled that the votes to recall Henyard were not valid.

In February of this year, Dolton village trustees called for an outside investigation into allegations that Henyard had been misusing public funds while the village was millions of dollars in debt. This accusation came at the same time the Illinois Attorney General's Office told Henyard's charity multiple times in recent months to stop improperly soliciting donations because it had not registered with the state as required by law.

According to published reports, Henyard vetoed the trustees' resolution calling for an investigation.

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