Covering the Land of Lincoln

Judge sanctions lawyers in McLean County sexual harassment lawsuit

A federal judge has censored lawyers on opposing sides of a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by a former McLean County prosecutor who accused a female co-worker of making unwanted sexual advances during his time in the office.

In his 2019 lawsuit, Layne Roberts claims he was the victim of sexual harassment by former prosecutor Kristin Alferink, starting in 2016 with her alleged efforts to engage him in a romantic relationship. Named in the lawsuit along with Alferink were state’s attorney Don Knapp, former state’s attorney Jason Chambers and the county prosecutor’s office.

Alferink was terminated from her job in 2017 and now works as a prosecutor for Champaign County. She has denied Roberts’ allegations. Roberts also was terminated in 2017 and later sanctioned by the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission for practicing law while his license was lapsed.

After negotiations failed to produce a settlement in the lawsuit, a Sept. 12 trial date was set in US District Court for the Central District in Peoria.

The case took an unexpected turn last week when Judge Joe Billy McDade ordered Roberts’ lawyer, Jeffrey Kulwin of Chicago, and Carrie Haas, the Bloomington lawyer handling the case for the county, to explain why they had failed to recognize that the county prosecutors cannot face the claims as laid out in the complaint.

Both attorneys were censored “for a lack of due diligence in this case” and Kulwin also was fined $2,000.

In a harshly worded order, the judge commented that the work by both lawyers falls far short of what he expects in a federal courtroom. “Had the court not intervened, legally frivolous claims would have gone to trial, been submitted to a jury, and possibly resulted in an erroneous verdict, which would have opened the door to extensive, unnecessary post-trial proceedings,” the judge wrote.

“A brief inquiry into this matter would have yielded very clear, longstanding precedent demonstrating plaintiffs claims cannot be asserted against these entities,” wrote McDade, who criticized Haas for her failure to conduct “simple research” that could have led her to seek dismissal of the claims.

The lawyers were put on notice of potential sanctions in an Aug. 12 order by McDade, noting that “it has become painfully apparent (to me) that this case is not ready for trial — a troubling fact given this case has been litigated among attorneys and by attorneys for three years.”

McDade went on to point out the major flaw with the pending lawsuit: “As a state agency, the McLean County State’s Attorney’s Office is not a suable entity.” Both lawyers were ordered to explain their handling of the case. The judge later found those explanations “unacceptable.”

WGLT reached out to Haas and Kulwin for comment. Almost responded with a statement on Haas’ behalf:

“The county is incredibly happy with Ms. Haas’ representation in the Roberts’ matter and all other cases in which she represents us. Regarding the Roberts’ litigation, strategic decisions have been made throughout the case to put the county and the taxpayers in the most advantageous position possible.”

Kulwin has not responded.

Four days after the judge sought an explanation, Hass and Kulwin filed a joint report on the status of the case. They said Roberts was willing to dismiss three major claims related to sexual harassment and retaliation involving Alferink. The two sides are discussing whether claims limited to relief under the Illinois Human Rights Act can be litigated, said the report.

The lawyers acknowledged that discussions are taking place on whether an amended complaint might be filed to narrow the issues for a future trial.

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