Las Vegas POA

Court Upholds Officer’s $500k Judgment Against Sergeant

Written on 09/29/2020
Will Aitchison

Officer Detlef Sommerfield works for the Chicago Police Department. Sommerfield was born and raised in Germany, where some of his family members had died in concentration camps during the Holocaust. At some point he emigrated to the United States, settled in Chicago, and joined the CPD. His supervisor was Sergeant Lawrence Knasiak.

As the federal Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals described it, “for years, Sommerfield endured vicious anti-Semitic abuse from Sergeant Lawrence Knasiak. We prefer not to debase this opinion by repeating what Knasiak said: suffice it to say that the vitriol invoked Hitler, the actions the Nazis took in the death camps, and regret that Jews today live in the United States. Although Sommerfield repeatedly pleaded with Knasiak to stop the harassment, Knasiak never let up.”

On March 13, 2004, Sommerfield’s girlfriend was taken to the emergency room after suffering a severe allergic reaction to a medication. Sommerfield received permission from the police captain to go visit her in the hospital during his shift. When he returned, Knasiak said, “If you want to take care of your f**king Mexican girlfriend, you take time off like everybody else.” This was the last straw for Sommerfield. He responded by filing a formal complaint, known as a CR, or “complaint register,” to the internal affairs division about Knasiak’s offensive comment about his girlfriend and the relentless harassment. Filing the CR against Knasiak was a drastic step. One CPD sergeant testified at trial that he had never heard of another officer filing a CR against a superior officer.

Two days after filing his complaint, Sommerfield was riding in the passenger seat of a patrol car driven by another officer. Attempting to refuel the car at a gas station, the driver discovered that his gas card did not work. He suggested that, because Sommerfield lived in the area, they could go to Sommerfield’s house to retrieve the gas card. They drove to his house, and Sommerfield ran inside for a moment to retrieve the card.

A Sergeant Kelly was on Sommerfield’s street at the time Sommerfield went into his house. Kelly immediately called Knasiak, who ordered Sommerfield and the driver to meet him back at the station. Knasiak summoned four other superior officers to witness his discipline of Sommerfield. CPD officers later testified that they had never heard of this happening before.

Knasiak accused Sommerfield of violating rules by failing to contact the dispatcher while he was retrieving the gas card. Knasiak then filed a CR against Sommerfield alleging that he had been insubordinate by leaving the car without contacting the dispatcher and recommended that Sommerfield be suspended. This was the only time Knasiak had ever issued a CR, much less one with the serious charge of insubordination. The Department suspended Sommerfield for five days.

Later, Sommerfield was passed over for a promotion to the position of canine handler even though he was rated “well qualified.” According to Department rules, in order to be eligible for the canine position, an officer could not have three or more complaints that resulted in suspension. The CPD’s canine coordinator testified that Sommerfield did not get the promotion because he had had exactly three suspensions in the preceding five years, including the one that resulted from Knasiak’s recommendation.

Sommerfield brought a federal court lawsuit against Knasiak and the City, contending that Knasiak had harassed him and discriminated against him on the basis of race, religion, and national origin, and had retaliated against him based on protected activities. A jury returned a verdict in Sommerfield’s favor and against Knasiak for $540,000 in punitive damages and $0 in compensatory damages. Knasiak appealed, contending that he was not the person who imposed Sommerfield’s suspension or denied him the promotion. The Appeals Court found that “the question is not that simple. Individual liability is possible if the subordinate employee, motivated by unlawful discriminatory intent, caused the nominal actors to take the adverse action. That can happen, for example, if the evidence shows that the nominal decision-makers played no real role in the action, but instead simply rubber-stamped the action of the subordinate.

“There was ample evidence in the record from which the jury could have concluded (and did conclude) that Knasiak filed the CR after the gas card incident out of discriminatory animus, and that it was this action that triggered the two adverse actions at issue. In filing that CR, he intended to bring about the predictable results – namely, Sommerfield’s suspension and ineligibility for the canine handler position. There was also evidence to support the jury’s conclusion that Knasiak, not the committee that investigated the CR, was the real decision-maker.

“Knasiak himself testified that his recommendations for suspensions were almost always taken. And Sommerfield presented evidence that this practice was followed in his case, given that Knasiak spoke with the police sergeants investigating his CR. The jury was entitled to conclude that Knasiak intended to get Sommerfield suspended because of his Jewish heritage and that he knew his suspension recommendation would be accepted because of the consistent practice in the Department and his close relationships with the investigators.”

Sommerfield v. Knasiak, 2020 WL 4211297 (7th Cir. 2020).

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