Illinois Supreme Court Expands Strict Liability Rule
Illinois’ highest court recently broadened the strict liability rule to include harassment committed by any supervisory or management employee, although the harasser has no direct supervisory authority over the complainant. This ruling is a departure from existing standards under federal interpretations of Title VII, as well as previous rulings from Illinois’s lower courts.
The Factual Background. The April 16, 2009 ruling came in the case of Sangamon County Sheriff’s Dep’t v. Illinois Human Rights Comm’n, 233 Ill.2d 125 2009). Sangamon County involved a harassment claim brought by Donna Feleccia, a records clerk in the Sangamon County Sheriff’s Department. Feleccia alleged she was sexually harassed by Ron Yanor, a sergeant. Yanor was a department supervisor, but was not Feleccia’s supervisor. The two individuals worked in separate divisions in the department, and their work schedules only overlapped for three hours between 2:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Feleccia complained of several incidents of sexual harassment that occurred in late 1998. None of these incidents had been reported to anyone in the Sheriff’s Department. During one incident, Yanor called Felecia at home after an annual dinner attended by members of the sheriff’s department and asked her to go to a local bar. He told her others from the department would be present at the bar. Yanor picked Felecia up, but when they arrived at the bar, only one other person from the department was present. Felecia was uncomfortable and asked to be taken home. Yanor grabbed her and asked for a kiss. She refused, but eventually kissed him, after he would not release her arm. On another occasion, Yanor appeared at Feleccia’s home uninvited with a cup filled with Christmas candy. Later that month, Feleccia saw Yanor in a local bar after a friend’s party. Yanor glared at Feleccia as she danced. On another day, Yanor approached Feleccia when she was working alone in the office after 5 p.m. Yanor asked if she would like to go to a motel.
The final act of harassment involved a fake letter issued on the letterhead of the Illinois Department of Public Health. Feleccia received the letter in February 1999, which informed her that she had been exposed to a sexually transmitted disease. The letter was determined to be a forgery. Yanor’s fingerprints were found on the letter, and Yanor eventually acknowledged that he created the letter, but did so as a practical joke.
The Sheriff disciplined Yanor, suspending him for four days and issuing a letter of reprimand. Feleccia was dissatisfied with the discipline, and it was only after she complained about the discipline, that Feleccia reported the prior incidents of harassment.
Feleccia filed a charge of sexual harassment and retaliation with the Illinois Human Rights Commission. The IHRC determined that Feleccia had established sexual harassment based on a hostile work environment and ruled the Department was strictly liable for Yanor’s harassment. The IHRC awarded $10,000 in damages and $13,400 in fees and costs.
The Appellate Court of Illinois reversed, explaining Yanor was merely a co-employee and did not have supervisory authority over Feleccia. The Court ruled the Department was not liable because it took reasonable corrective measures upon learning of the harassment.
The Supreme Court’s Ruling. The Illinois Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s ruling, holding the department was strictly liable. The Court grounded its decision in the language of the Illinois Human Rights Act. The first applicable clause of the Act provides that it is a civil rights violation for any employer or employee to engage in sexual harassment. The second clause limits liability for “nonemployees” and “nonmanagerial” and “nonsupervisory” employees. The Act specifically provides: “That an employer shall be 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.” 775 ILCS 5/2-102(D).
In addition to the plain language of the Act, the Illinois Supreme Court cited public policy considerations. The Court explained, “[it] is not unfair to hold employers responsible for sexual harassment by supervisory employees. . . . Not 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.” The Court further stated the Act should be construed liberally to achieve its purpose in preventing harassment for all individuals. The Court reasoned a liberal construction would ensure that all victims have full incentive to report harassment. Victims of harassment by supervisors might have a reasonable belief of retaliation, since supervisors often are better connected and have greater job security.
Significance of the Decision. The Sangamon County case is significant because the complainant’s claim would have met a different result had the case been analyzed under Title VII and federal case law. Under Title VII, an employer is strictly liable for a supervisor’s harassment only when the harasser has immediate or higher authority over the complainant. The distinction between federal and Illinois law was observed by Illinois Justice Karmeier, who dissented. Justice Karmeier noted the majority’s decision departed from employment law decisions across the United States, writing: “I note, moreover, that by adopting the construction it does, the majority not only goes beyond the principles governing sexual harassment claims under federal law, it imposes a standard of liability which appears to be without precedent in any jurisdiction of the United States.”
Under the Sangamon County decision, Illinois employers may be held liable for sexual harassment more easily under the Illinois Human Rights Act. Adequate harassment training is more important than ever. Employers should continue training all supervisors about harassment. Employees should be informed what harassment is and how to prevent it. Employees should also be trained about the consequences of conduct, including the fact that all supervisors will bind the employer for their treatment of all lower-level employees.