St. Clair County leaders in 2014 authorized the payment of $514,415 in financial settlements to 24 people to resolve claims arising from work-related injuries.
In addition, the county paid $45,000 to settle a pair of discrimination claims, and another $25,000 to a woman who in 2013 claimed she fell out of a courtroom seat and injured her neck.
The smallest payout: $1 to a county highway department worker who claimed neck, head and shoulder injuries stemming from an October 2011 vehicle accident.
The county admitted to no wrongdoing in its settlements.
In September 2014, the county agreed to pay Gregg Gregory, 69, a former employee of the county juvenile detention center, $15,000 to settle an age discrimination complaint filed in February 2013 with the Illinois Department of Human Rights.
Gregory alleged that in August 2011 he was laid off from his position as assistant superintendent of the juvenile detention center on the grounds that a shortage of funds made it impossible to continue funding his job.
Gregory claimed that Michael J. Buettner, the director of the 20th Judicial Circuit Court Services and Probation, told him he “was expendable because of my age and the fact that I was near retirement,” according to Gregory’s complaint.
Buetter, who retired last month from his job as court services director, disputed Gregory’s version of events.
“We had cuts from the state, and I needed to make some budgetary decisions,” said Buettner, who is a candidate in the Ward 2 race in Tuesday’s Belleville City Council elections. “I cut from the top. And it was purely a budgetary decision. I had to save money somewhere and I figured I needed people on the floor to watch the kids and I was going to cut administration.”
The St. Clair County Sheriff’s Department reported the most injury claims that resulted in settlements last year, with nine workers receiving payouts, including former deputy Russell Wagner, who split the $200,000 package with his attorney. He was in a car accident while on duty in 2009.
Shenterria Evans, a jailhouse corrections officer, received two settlements last year totaling nearly $30,000. First, she and her lawyer received through the worker’s comp system $21,273 for a slip-and-fall incident in May 2010; then she received another $8,325 for injuries she claimed she suffered in June 2011 when a restroom sink fell on her right leg and foot.
In addition, five jail inmates received settlements ranging from $7,500 to $500 apiece to settle claims of correction officer abuse and unsanitary living conditions at the jail, the records show.
Rick Watson, the county sheriff, said the jail is a safer place today than only a few years ago because of intensified efforts to reduce the inmate population. By working with the county’s chief judge, the state’s attorney and public defender’s office, “We’re moving people out quicker than we used to,” Watson said, adding the weekday population is only 350, or about 100 to 200 inmates less than several years ago.
The county highway department had the second-most settlements with four. Two of the payments — for $56,045 and $51,505 — were paid to resolve claims by department employees who claimed they were injured carrying buckets of paint and using a sledgehammer to drive a sign post stake.
Meanwhile, Mary Kelley, of Belleville, filed a lawsuit in February 2013 in St. Clair County Circuit Court after she claimed she fell out of a courtroom seat and hurt her neck.
Kelley was in Courtroom 404 for jury selection in March 2012. When she sat down in a courtroom seats, it collapsed, causing her to fall to the floor and injure her neck and back, according to her lawsuit, in which both the county and the St. Clair County Public Building Commission were accused of negligence for allegedly failing to maintain courthouse furniture properly.
Kelley had asked for more than $100,000 in damages for medical expenses, loss of income plus court costs, but settled for $25,000, county documents show.
In June, the News-Democrat reported that more than $3.3 million in legal settlements have been approved behind closed doors in St. Clair County in the past 10 years — possibly in violation of the state’s Sunshine laws.
The settlements during that decade ranged from $900,000 to a teenage boy allegedly sexually abused at the county’s Juvenile Detention Center, to $1,000 to a person claiming injuries when placed under arrest by sheriff’s deputies. The county admitted no wrongdoing as part of the settlements. County officials released the settlements to the News-Democrat following a request through the Freedom of Information Act.
Dan Maher, the former county administrator, said at the time the county has handled settlements the same way for more than 30 years with the approval and supervision of three different state’s attorneys. The state’s attorney serves as the legal adviser for county government.
At least 32 settlements were paid out since 2004 — half of which were payouts of $25,000 or more. However, a review of meeting minutes since 2008 shows County Board members never specifically voted on such agreements in open session, the News-Democrat reported.