County officials sued by fired animal control warden

WATSEKA — In a lawsuit filed against two Iroquois County Board members and the county’s animal control administrator, a former animal control warden alleges she was maliciously fired last October in retaliation for speaking out about corruption in her workplace.

Attorney Christopher R. Minelli of Ottawa filed the 10-count lawsuit in Iroquois County Circuit Court on June 21 on behalf of Jamie Fanning, who was fired by the county on Oct. 27, 2017.

Served with summons on Aug. 29 were the three defendants named in the lawsuit: John Shure, the board’s chairman; Marvin Stichnoth, chairman of the board’s tax committee; and Dr. Hany Youssef, animal control administrator.

Shure said Wednesday he was not permitted to comment on the lawsuit. Shure said the defendants have legal representation through the county’s liability insurance provider, which he declined to name.

Both Stichnoth and Youssef did not immediately return messages seeking comment Wednesday.

Circuit Clerk Lisa Hines said a court date would likely be set by Minelli after Sept. 29.

In her complaint, Fanning said that after being appointed by Youssef as animal control warden in August 2016, she “observed serious violations of local and state law in regards to how (Youssef) carried out his duties,” including that:

— Youssef did not perform any veterinary examinations on any dogs brought to his clinic, the Watseka Animal Hospital, regardless of the animal’s condition upon arrival, yet billed the county for exams anyway.

— Youssef forged medical records and invoices regarding the non-rendered services when faced with public-records requests.

— Youssef did not always hold stray dogs for seven days as required by law before disposing of them.

— Youssef regularly sent dogs to kill shelters in violation of the law.

— Youssef regularly double-billed villages for services he purportedly provided.

— Seized animals were regularly fed “very little” while in Youssef’s care.

— Youssef demanded that Fanning pick up illegally seized dogs over her objections and over the instructions of State’s Attorney Jim Devine, and Youssef also charged fees to those dogs’ owners.

— Youssef verbally harassed Fanning on a “constant and daily basis,” including screaming at her for long periods of time, belittling her about her lack of a college degree, and telling her she had no respect for her husband because he “allowed (her) to help with the bills and that is not a woman’s job.”

On June 21, 2017, Fanning met with Shure and Stichnoth to discuss her concerns about Youssef’s actions toward her and his “blatant disregard for the law in handling animals.” But both Shure and Stichnoth dismissed her concerns, noting that “everyone has a boss they don’t like,” the lawsuit said. Neither Shure nor Stichnoth did any further investigation into the matter, Fanning added.

Following a published media report about Youssef’s actions, he resigned as administrator in September 2017, but then hours later rescinded his resignation.

Two weeks later, Fanning met with Shure, Stichnoth and Youssef and was allegedly “screamed at, threatened, and unfounded accusations were directed to her for approximately two hours.” During the meeting, Youssef allegedly told Fanning that he knew she was the person leaking information to the media and general public about him. Both Stichnoth and Youssef told Fanning that she would regret her actions.

About a month later, Youssef told Fanning that he had hired another animal control warden, who would take 50 percent of Fanning’s duties. Youssef told her to sign a written contract within one day or she would be fired. Fanning said she then met with Devine, who advised her not to sign the contract.

After Fanning refused to sign the contract, she was suspended by Youssef.  That same day, Fanning was fired by Youssef and Shure. When Fanning asked them why she was being fired, Shure said she was an “at-will employee” and that the county did not need to provide a reason. Youssef then told her that “they would just say it was for poor job performance.” Fanning was never given a written explanation despite requesting one.

The lawsuit alleges the county officials violated the Illinois Whistleblower’s Act by firing her in retaliation for her disclosing public corruption or wrongdoing.

Fanning also alleges violations of the Wage Payment and Collections Act, alleging that she is owed at least $76,230 in unpaid wages, including wages owed for being on-call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in her first several months of employment.

Also, Fanning alleges defamation by Youssef and Stichnoth, noting that following her termination, both told news media that she was fired for poor job performance, and not for workplace retaliation or another reason. They made similar statements during a public meeting of the county board, as well.

The intentional infliction of emotional distress is also alleged against Youssef for exposing her to “constant, extreme and excessive verbal and emotional abuse pertaining to her gender, her husband and her education level,” among other alleged harassment.

Civil conspiracy is also alleged of all three defendants, in that they “knowingly entered into an explicit or implicit agreement to terminate (Fanning’s employment) unlawfully because of her whistleblowing.”

In the lawsuit, Fanning requests a money judgment in an amount to be determined at trial for lost wages, interest, all litigation costs and costs of the suit; an order requiring the county to reinstate her to her position; and punitive damages, among other relief.

The suit seeks in excess of $50,000.

In an email written by Stichnoth in January 2018 — which was attached to the lawsuit as an exhibit — Stichnoth defends Youssef and the county for firing Fanning.

“There has been some negative publicity in the past few months about the operation of our facility,” the email reads. “Many false accusations were made by a disgruntled animal control warden. She was dismissed from her position for poor performance. She was counseled by Dr. Youssef and county board members but made no attempt to rectify her performance. We had no choice but to replace her.

“She and her supporters launched a social media attack against Dr. Youssef, the chairman of the county board and myself, demanding her reinstatement. Many false accusations were put forth, planting doubt in the community about the status of our animal control operation. It was alleged that Dr. Youssef was euthanizing dogs unnecessarily, a charge made by the disgruntled warden. There is no evidence of that happening. Unclaimed dogs are moved to adoption shelters whenever it is at all possible. Of course dogs that are sick or injured beyond help, or vicious dogs, cannot be adopted.

“There were several charges made against Dr. Youssef that were trivial and based solely on the judgment of the warden. The warden believed that her past experience volunteering at an animal shelter made her more knowledgeable than a licensed veterinarian with many years experience treating animals. ...

“In closing, Dr. Youssef provides a very good facility for animal control and goes beyond what is required.”

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