Cook County Jail guard flunked fitness test, is suing Sheriff Tom Dart for discrimination

A former Cook County Jail guard is suing Sheriff Tom Dart for rejecting her bid to become a courthouse deputy because she flunked a fitness test.

Denise Hobbs, 59, says the test constituted age, sex and race discrimination and that the sheriff required it even though an administrative law judge had ruled otherwise.

Hobbs, who has filed suit against Dart in federal court in Chicago, is seeking unspecified damages and a court order blocking the sheriff from administering the test in the future.

Taking the test in July 2019, she failed two parts of the test: completing a 1.5-mile run in under 16 minutes and 52 seconds and doing 24 situps in a minute.

She apparently was able to pass the third part of the test: bench-pressing more than half of her body weight.

She was given a second chance two days later and was able to do the situps but again failed the running portion.

She said she was ordered to go back to work at the jail but retired a few months later.

Hobbs was among 25 people taking part in a training academy for courthouse deputies, including 15 men and 10 women between 30 and 59 years old. Eight, like Hobbs, were Black women, and three were Black men. Six people were rejected from continuing in the academy, including four Black women, one Black man and one white man.

The lawsuit says the test was biased because the standards were the same for everyone despite lower average abilities of older people and women. African Americans over 40 are less likely than whites to pass the test, according to the lawsuit, which also says the fitness exam doesn’t correlate with the duties of a courthouse deputy.

The Illinois Fraternal Order of Police, the union that represents courthouse deputies, agreed to the fitness test, which was administered between 2014 and 2019.

“The sheriff’s office and the FOP share the desire to ensure that physically fit officers fill the deputy positions in court services,” says Matthew Walberg, a spokesman for the sheriff.

Shortly after Hobbs failed in July 2019, the fitness test was eliminated “for reasons totally unrelated to the merits of the test,” according to Walberg.

The Illinois Labor Relations Board found that the sheriff’s agreement with the FOP was invalid because the union for jail guards — the Teamsters — wasn’t part of the deal.

Walberg says Hobbs and the five other guards who failed the test threatened to sue, that the sheriff offered them courthouse jobs and that Hobbs declined and chose to retire.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart.
Brian Rich / Sun-Times

More than 2,800 corrections officers and 660 court-services deputies work for the sheriff’s office. About 50 deputies transfer from the jail to courthouses each year, but no one is required to take a physical agility test now, according to Walberg.

The Cook County sheriff’s fitness standards.

The Cook County sheriff’s fitness standards.
U.S. District Court

Hobbs, who started work as a Cook County correctional officer in 2007, retired in September

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