In a significant ruling interpreting the Illinois Human Rights Act, the Illinois Supreme Court recently expanded employers’ potential exposure to sexual harassment claims and damages by holding that an employer is strictly liable for sexual harassment committed by a supervisor, even if the supervisor does not directly supervise the employee who is harassed.
The case is Sangamon County Sheriff’s Department v. The Illinois Human Rights Commission (IL Nos. 105517, 105518, 2009).
Under this ruling, an employer is automatically liable for sexual harassment by any of its supervisors, without regard to whether the employer even knew about the harassment, or took reasonable corrective measures upon learning of the harassment.
Before Sangamon County, Illinois courts had imposed strict liability on an employer only for sexual harassment by the employee’s direct supervisor or someone in the employee’s chain of command.
The decision also contrasts with earlier decisions under Title VII for hostile environment harassment, which hinges on the harasser’s status as supervisor or co-employee of the victim.
This new and expansive Illinois standard prompted one dissenting justice to note that it “imposes a standard of liability which appears to be without precedent in any jurisdiction of the United States.”
Finding, and then a reversal
The plaintiff in Sangamon County filed sexual harassment and retaliation claims against the sheriff’s department where she works. She said a patrol division sergeant had forged a health department memo advising the plaintiff that she had a sexually transmitted disease. She said the sergeant had also propositioned her several times. The sergeant had no supervisory authority over the plaintiff, who worked in a separate division and on a different shift.
The Illinois Human Rights Commission concluded that the plaintiff had established sexual harassment based on a hostile environment, in violation of Section 2-102(D) of the Illinois Human Rights Act, which holds employers “responsible for sexual harassment of the employer’s employees by nonemployees or nonmanagerial and nonsupervisory employees only if the employer becomes aware of the conduct and fails to take reasonable corrective measures.”
The commission found as a matter of law that the department was strictly liable for the sergeant’s harassment because he was a supervisory employee. The commission gave no weight to corrective measures the sheriff’s department took. (The sergeant was suspended and received a letter of reprimand.)
The Illinois Appellate Court reversed the commission’s findings, holding that the sergeant was not the plaintiff’s supervisor but rather her co-worker. Thus, the department escaped the strict liability standard and avoided liability by taking reasonable corrective measures after learning of the harassment.
Supreme Court weighs in
The Illinois Supreme Court, however, reversed. The court, citing ambiguous language in Section 2-102(D), held that an employer is strictly liable for the hostile environment harassment of any of its supervisory employees, even when the supervisor at issue has no authority to affect the terms and conditions of the harassed employee.
The sergeant, according to the court, was neither a “nonemployee” nor a “nonmanagerial or nonsupervisory” employee, so the sheriff’s department was strictly liable for the harassment “regardless of whether it was aware of the harassment or took measures to correct the harassment.”
The court refused to follow federal court decisions interpreting Title VII, which holds that an employer’s liability depends on whether the harasser is a co-worker or supervisor. The court bluntly explained that it was not bound by the decisions of the federal courts, but rather by the language of the Illinois law itself.
Justifying its holding from a policy perspective, the court explained that “[n]ot only are supervisors the ‘public face’ of the employer, but employers are in the best position to train supervisors and make them aware of the law prohibiting sexual harassment.”
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