Jury Verdict Favors Village in Age Discrimination Lawsuit
Jury returns speedy verdict saying village staff and elected officials did not discriminate against former employee terminated during budget cuts because of her age.
A jury decided that the Village of Oak Lawn did not engage in age discrimination when it terminated a village employee one day shy of her 60th birthday in April 2008.
Diane Cipolla filed an age discrimination lawsuit against the village in February 2011, seeking $500,000 and other damages from the village.
Cipolla, now 64, was employed as a business regulation officer between 1996 and 2008 for the village finance department when she was terminated for “budgetary concerns.” Cipolla alleged she was terminated idue to her age and that village finance director Brian Hanigan told members of the village board in executive session that he “wanted to hire someone younger.”
The lawsuit did not name Hanigan individually as a defendant. The Illinois Department of Human Rights had earlier dismissed the discrimination complaint as “lacking in substantial evidence.”
After a four-day jury trial before Judge Thomas R. Mulroy in the Cook County Circuit Court’s Law Division, a jury handed back a unanimous verdict after less than two hours of deliberation in favor of the village on Thursday.
“The speed in which the jury returned a verdict in favor of the village … sends a clear message that neither village manager, Larry Deetjen, nor any of its elected officials discriminated against the plaintiff,” Paul O’Grady, the village’s attorney, said in a news release. “We are very happy to bring this matter to its successful conclusion on behalf of the [Oak Lawn] taxpayers.”
During the trial the village went up against a familiar litigator, Hinsdale-attorney Dana Kurtz, who won an $850,000 settlement on a sexual harassment lawsuit on behalf of Oak Lawn firefighter Sharon Januszewski.
Kurtz claimed that the jury was confused by the judge’s instructions. During their less than two hours’ of deliberation, Kurtz said jurors passed a note to the judge asking for “clarification” of what was meant by the term “fired.”
“The jury was confused by the judge’s instruction,” Kurtz said, "when in fact [the village] did put in a younger, less experienced employee [to replace Cipolla].”
Oak Lawn Village Board members present at the April 10, 2008 executive were called to testify on behalf of the village, including Mayor Dave Heilmann, and trustees Alex Olejniczak (Dist. 2), Carol Quinlan (Dist. 5) and Tom Phelan (Dist. 6).
Kurtz had promised a “surprise witness” who was present at the executive session, which turned out to be former Oak Lawn trustee, Jerry Hurckes. Hurckes was called as a witness for Cipolla.
Since being terminated by the village almost four years ago, Cipolla has not been able to find full-time employment. Kurtz said they are looking at their options for an appeal.
“I’m proud of Diane for standing up for her rights,” the attorney said. “Hopefully we can get justice for her.”
During trial preparation, the village board refused to turn over the audio tape and minutes of the April 10, 2008 executive session, which followed a contentious open board meeting discussing village layoffs and budget cuts.
The village claimed executive privilege because village personnel were discussed in executive session.
“If you get the minutes, let me know,” Kurtz said.
Clarification: Patch included details that Trustee Bob Streit (Dist. 3) and former Trustee Steven Rosenbaum ignored requests for depositions and and/or subpoenas based on inaccurate information. The Village of Oak Lawn attorneys maintain that the attorney for the plaintiff inappropriately contacted former Trustee Rosenbaum against court rules; Streit's deposition was scheduled--and canceled--several times by the plaintiff's attorney.