Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Illinois Guard’s Wrongful Termination Suit Dismissed; Guard Terminated for Sex with Prisoners

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court’s dismissal of a Black Illinois guard’s wrongful termination action.

In March or April 2003, Nicole Burns, a female detainee at the Cook County, Illinois jail reported that guards were engaging in sexual intercourse with her and several other detainees. Detectives eventually identified about 20 male guards, half of whom were African-American, as suspects of interest. Detainees reported that guard Keith Swearnigen-El “was having inappropriate relations with detainee Portia Warrington.”

“Warrington was interviewed…and admitted that she had sex with Swearnigen-El. Telephone records also showed that between March 1 and May 31, 2003, Warrington made about 100 collect calls from the jail to Swearnigen-El’s personal cell phone and that he accepted about 25 of those calls.”

Swearnigen-El was de-deputized on July 3, 2003 and a warrant was issued for his arrest on custodial sexual misconduct charges on August 13, 2003. Swearnigen was suspended on August 26, 2003 and he resigned two days later.

During a June 2004 bench trial, Warrington testified “and repeated her earlier statements that, while she was a detainee, she had sex with Swearnigen-El…. The parties stipulated that Warrington made 100 calls from the jail to Swarnigen-El’s phone and that he accepted 25 of them. Despite this evidence, Swearnigen-El was acquitted.” The “judge found no corroboration for Warrington’s testimony, which he discounted because, while on the stand, Warrington told the prosecutor that she did not like her, which, according to the judge ‘show[ed] utter contempt and disrespect for members of law enforcement.’ The judge also suggested that, by ‘willingly’ having sex with Swearnigen-El, Warrington was ‘aiding and abetting in the commission of a felony.’” However, the Illinois custodial sexual misconduct statute clearly provides that offenders are incapable of consent.

Swearnigen-El sued his former employer for race and gender discrimination and retaliation. He also alleged state law torts of malicious prosecution and intentional infliction of emotional distress. After the district court granted defendants summary judgment, Swearnigen-El appealed and the Seventh Circuit affirmed.

The court found that summary judgment was appropriate on Swearnigen-El’s race and gender discrimination claims because he failed to show a discriminatory motivation. The court also agreed that Swearnigen-El failed to allege a prima facie case of retaliation, and that “no rational juror could find that the defendants’ reasons for taking action against him were pretextual.”

The court affirmed dismissal of the malicious prosecution claim, finding that Swearnigen-El could not prove the essential element of the absence of probable cause. Similarly, it found that Swearnigen-El could not prove that Defendants’ conduct was extreme and outrageous; an essential element of the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim.

“Swearnigen-El was one of many suspects in a wide-ranging investigation of custodial sexual misconduct,” the court noted. “He has not shown that improper motivations—as opposed to corroborated evidence of wrongdoing—caused the defendants to take action against him. This ultimately dooms his claims.” See: Swearnigen-El v. Cook County Sheriff’s Dept., 602 F.3d 852 (7th Cir. 2010).

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

Swearnigen-El v. Cook County Sheriff’s Dept.