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Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013 04:18 pm

Back on the payroll

State rehires lawsuit target

Sylvia Riperton-Lewis
What do you get if you are accused of bullying an underling so badly that he sues and your employer pays a $300,000 settlement?

If you are Sylvia Riperton-Lewis and your employer is the state of Illinois, you get rehired after a stint in the private sector.

Riperton-Lewis’ conduct more than a decade ago was appalling, according to the plaintiff and a federal court.

The plaintiff, Kenneth Shanoff, says that Riperton-Lewis, his supervisor at the Illinois Department of Human Services, made life so unpleasant while he worked at the John Madden Mental Health Center in Chicago that he became ill. He says in his lawsuit that Riperton-Lewis called him a “haughty Jew” after she was hired as a manager in 1996 and once lunged at him with a pen.

Soon after becoming his supervisor, Riperton-Lewis told Shanoff that he did not want to see “this nigger get angry,” according to his lawsuit, and that she once told him “I know how to put you Jews in your place.” When he asked to have days off for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Shanoff says that Riperton-Lewis told him “I don’t give a damn about your holidays.”

Things went downhill from there, according to Shanoff, who says in court documents that the abuse, much of it anti-Semitic, was so severe that he became depressed and was forced to take a medical leave. He says that he appealed to department officials who were no help  – one told him to look for a new job. When Riperton-Lewis told him to come back to work or face discharge, Shanoff says he asked her “Why are you being like this?”

“I hate everything that you are,” she responded, according to Shanoff’s lawsuit.

Riperton-Lewis denied making any discriminatory statements. A federal trial court ruled that Riperton-Lewis’ remarks weren’t sufficient to constitute a hostile work environment and so dismissed the lawsuit, but a three-judge appellate panel disagreed and ordered the case reinstated.

“She (Riperton-Lewis) used her supervisory position to bully, intimidate and insult Shanoff because of his race and religion, which is the type of ‘extreme’ harassment that is the hallmark of a hostile environment claim,” the appellate court wrote in a 2001 ruling that revived the case that was settled soon thereafter. “Riperton-Lewis’s remarks were not merely inappropriate, insulting, demeaning or annoying, and there is no indication that she was teasing Shanoff or that she simply lacked a proper sensitivity to his race and religion.”

Without admitting any liability or wrongdoing, the state agreed to pay Shanoff and his lawyers $300,000, with the plaintiff agreeing to resign. Citing confidentiality clauses in the settlement agreement, Shanoff, who worked as a staff development and training coordinator, declined comment.

Riperton-Lewis kept working for the Department of Human Services and was an assistant to the department’s inspector general when she left the state payroll in June, 2008. She took a job as a deputy commissioner for the Chicago Department of Public Health, where she worked until January of last year, when she became an executive for a nonprofit Chicago agency that runs foster care and adoption services as well as other programs for at-risk kids.

Last month, the state Department of Healthcare and Family Services hired Riperton-Lewis as a manager for the the department’s Bureau of Quality Management, a position exempt from civil service rules. She is paid $94,500 a year, more than $2,000 more than she was paid when she last worked for the state.

Asked whether the department was aware of the lawsuit and settlement, Kelly Jakubek, spokeswoman for the Department of Healthcare and Family Services, said she wasn’t sure how much she could say because the hiring is a personnel matter, but she would check. She did not get back before press time.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.
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