By Jean Lotus
An Oak Park police officer has sued the village of Oak Park and a female police sergeant in federal court, alleging that the female supervisor shoved and threatened him nine days after he filed a sexual harassment complaint against her with the department.
The suit also alleges that the department and the village retaliated against Officer Rasul Freelain by withholding and delaying the allocation of sick days under the Family Medical Leave Act.
The lawsuit was filed May 17 in U.S. District Court.
Freelain, who has worked for the department for more than 10 years as a juvenile investigations detective and school resource officer, claims he filed a sexual harassment complaint with the police department on May 10, 2012 against Sgt. Dina Vardal for harassment incidents going back to 2007. Vardal has worked for the department for 15 years.
A week and a half later, Freelain said in the complaint, he was working near the Austin Blue Line stop as an extra police presence during the NATO events in Chicago. In the lawsuit, he alleges Vardal approached him and shoved him up against a squad car, pushing her face into his and threatening him by repeating the words, "Look out."
In the complaint, Freelain said police department supervisors and the village Human Relations Director Frank Spataro discouraged him from filing a battery claim against Vardal until the internal sexual harassment investigation was complete. A year later, the investigation remains open, according to the lawsuit.
According to Freelain's lawyer, Brian Barrido, Sgt. Vardal was not on duty when she allegedly shoved Freelain in May 2012. The lawsuit includes a state-law civil claim for assault and battery against Vardal.
The lawsuit lists a series of actions by Sgt. Vardal over six years that Freelain claims were sexually harassing.
According to the lawsuit, Freelain, who is married, initially rebuffed Vardal's advances in 2007, at which point she began to "retaliate against and harass" Freelain by insulting him in front of co-workers, rejecting his arrest reports for "inconsequential typographical errors" and coming to a traffic stop and ridiculing Freelain in front of fellow officers.
She also allegedly criticized Freelain over open police radio.
According to the suit, Freelain's wife became ill in January 2012 with what would eventually be diagnosed as cancer. The suit claims Freelain stepped down from his detective post to patrol officer, to allow him to have more time to care for his wife.
The suit says this put Freelain under Vardal's supervision more often. According to the suit, the harassment allegedly started again. In spring of 2012, Vardal allegedly told Freelain he looked "cute" on a video of a DUI field sobriety test, and later she approached and allegedly offered to give him individual training "one on one" on her "own personal time" to improve his skills. He reportedly declined. He also claims Vardal allegedly called him on his personal cellphone.
At that point he spoke with Spataro in human resources and filed a sexual harassment complaint May 10.
According to the federal complaint, after the alleged shoving incident May 19, Deputy Police Chief Anthony Ambrose told Freelain he would personally conduct the criminal investigation and that Freelain could not file a criminal complaint.
The suit alleges that the police and human resources departments then retaliated against Freelain by mischaracterizing medical leave days as voluntary instead of work-related.
When Freelain's wife required surgery in December 2102, the department and human resources told Freelain he could not take Family Medical Leave Act time off to care for her, as required by federal law, because he had taken too many personal sick days, according to the suit.
The suit said his sick days were reinstated and he was able to care for her until early March at which point he had to return to work. He was not able to secure an extension of his Family Leave Act time until late April 2013.
Village spokesman David Powers said in an email the village does not comment on pending litigation or personnel matters.
"I can say, however, that the village expects its employees to treat one another with respect and dignity," he said. "Actions contrary to this expectation certainly are not condoned or tolerated."
The court set a response deadline of June 11 for the village of Oak Park and Vardal. At that point the village and Vardal's lawyers will likely ask for more time, file a motion to dismiss or answer the complaint, Barrido said.
"We are confident our complaint will survive a motion to dismiss," he added.