In 2013, an attorney for then-Chicago Police Officer Laura Kubiak sent a letter to city attorneys. In it she said Kubiak had been the victim of “egregious” and illegal retaliation by her police bosses and was considering a lawsuit. However, Kubiak’s attorney offered a simple, and free, resolution: If the city would undo its retaliatory action against her, Kubiak would drop the issue.
The city refused, and now that decision has Chicago taxpayers on the hook for $4.5 million and counting.
The case goes back to 2012, when Kubiak reported to her bosses that she was verbally assaulted and made to feel physically threatened by then-Officer Veejay Zala. Kubiak said he confronted her in the hallway in police headquarters, where they both worked, shouted obscenities at her and told her she was not “real police.”
Kubiak’s supervisor told her she had discussed the incident with Zala, but took no other action. So, Kubiak filed a written complaint, forcing an internal investigation.
About two months later, Kubiak was transferred out of her longtime position in the public affairs office onto a midnight patrol shift. The officer who screamed at her was not transferred. Kubiak believed she was being punished for breaking the so-called police code of silence, and she hired a lawyer.
Documents obtained by WBEZ through a public records request show that’s when Kubiak’s lawyer sent the letter to the city asking for Kubiak to be reinstated in the office, and for Zala to be removed.
“Should we not receive notice … that the City is in agreement to undo the obvious and egregious retaliation and discrimination against Officer Kubiak, she will have no choice but to pursue her claims in court,” attorney Megan O’Malley wrote.
The city refused, and last month a Cook County jury found that Kubiak was indeed the victim of retaliation and awarded her $1.9 million.
The jury concluded that department leaders retaliated against Kubiak “in violation of the Illinois Whistleblower Act,” and that the retaliation was meant to prevent employees from coming forward with misconduct complaints.
“Six years ago, this very month, we … said ‘put her back to work,’ and the taxpayers of the city of Chicago would have paid exactly zero dollars and zero cents. And they would have gotten a valuable employee back,” O’Malley said. “[Instead] they dragged out this lawsuit for six years and paid outside counsel. And … now they have to pay our fees and they have to pay the verdict.”
The verdict, combined with attorneys fees, brings the total cost to taxpayers to more than $4.5 million — all for a lawsuit the city could have avoided simply by undoing its own illegal action.
The total amount could end up being more because the city hired a private law firm to defend the case and the firm has not yet billed for all its work.
As of May, the firm Jackson Lewis P.C. had billed the city $893,252. That amount, along with Kubiak’s legal fees, is included in the $4.5 million total. Not included is Jackson Lewis’ bills for conducting the trial or the preparation leading up to it.
Over the past 15 years, the city has paid private attorneys more than $200 million to defend police lawsuits, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Corporation Counsel Mark Flessner, who took over as the city’s top attorney this year, declined to be interviewed for this story, but he told the Tribune that the spending on private law firms is “scandalous” and vowed to rein in the expense.
O’Malley said in her experience with the city, there is often a stubborn refusal to settle disputes involving the Police Department, which she said ends up costing taxpayers more money.
Chicago last year paid out more than $90 million in lawsuits related to the Chicago Police Department, city data shows. However, most of those payouts came in the form of settlements, not verdicts. And the city gets pressure to fight police cases from the union that represents officers.
O’Malley acknowledged not every lawsuit should be settled, but she said the city should learn from Kubiak’s case.
“There are cases that absolutely call for a defense all the way through trial,” O’Malley said. “But I think the problem here that the mayor and the new corporation counsel need to understand, is that there's often an absolute refusal to even have a meaningful discussion and to look at the evidence with an objective view.”
WBEZ asked city law department spokesman Bill McCaffrey why the city rejected Kubiak’s offer to avoid a lawsuit, and if there are any lessons to be learned from her case. He declined to answer because the city is still evaluating its legal options in the Kubiak case.