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Illinois Supreme Court Expands Strict Liability for Harassment by a Supervisor

  • April 23, 2009

Illinois’ High Court has broadened the range of cases where an employer can be held strictly liable for the conduct of a supervisory employee. The state Supreme Court has found that under the Illinois Human Rights Act (IHRA), an employer is responsible for sexual harassment by a supervisor, regardless of the supervisor’s actual authority over the victim. Sangamon Cty Sheriff’s Dep’t v. The Illinois Human Rights Comm’n, Nos. 105517, 105518 cons. (Ill. Apr. 16, 2009). This is a significant departure from federal caselaw interpreting Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the federal law against employment discrimination. Under Title VII, an individual is not a “supervisor” for purposes of imposing strict liability unless he or she has the authority to affect the victim’s employment directly.

Donna Feleccia was a records clerk with the Sangamon County Sheriff’s Department. She filed a complaint of sexual harassment and retaliation against the Sheriff’s Department and a sergeant with the Illinois Department of Human Rights in 1999. The sergeant was a supervisor in the Department, but not Feleccia’s supervisor. (The male supervisor later was dismissed from the case after settling the claims against him.)

After a hearing, an administrative law judge recommended dismissal of the claims against both respondents. However, on review, the Illinois Human Rights Commission upheld the sexual harassment claims, finding that the plaintiff had established a hostile work environment. The Commission ruled, as a matter of law, that the Department was strictly liable for harassment by its supervisory employee, even though he was not the complainant’s supervisor. “Strict liability” means that “the employer is liable for sexual harassment regardless of whether the employer knew of the offending conduct and regardless of whether the conduct is quid pro quo sexual harassment or 'hostile environment’ sexual harassment.” The Commission awarded the plaintiff $10,000 in damages and $13,400 in fees and costs.

The Sheriff’s Department filed a petition for appellate court review. That court reversed the Commission’s decision, finding that the Department could not be held strictly liable for the harassing conduct of a supervisor who was not the complainant’s supervisor. The plaintiff and the Commission appealed to the state Supreme Court. The Court reversed and confirmed the Commission’s decision. In a 4-2 ruling, the Illinois Supreme Court agreed that the Sheriff’s Department could be held strictly liable in such circumstances.

The Illinois courts have interpreted the IHRA as imposing strict liability on an employer for sexual harassment of an employee by the employee’s direct supervisor. Expanding strict liability, the Supreme Court said, “The issue in this case is whether an employer is strictly liable under [the IHRA] for the 'hostile environment’ sexual harassment of its supervisory employees, where the supervisor has no authority to affect the terms and conditions of the complainant’s employment. The answer is yes.” The employer thus is responsible for the harassment of its supervisor “regardless of whether it was aware of the harassment or took measures to correct the harassment.” The Court said the complainant still bears the burden of proving that the offending conduct is harassment.

Under federal law, Sangamon probably would have been decided differently.  The supervisor would not have been considered a “supervisor” because he had no authority to affect directly the victim’s terms and conditions of employment; he would have been considered a co-employee.  The Illinois Supreme Court refused to look at federal law to interpret the IHRA and held the IHRA does not contain this type of restriction on employer liability.  According to Sangamon, if a harasser/employee is a supervisor and harasses an employee, the company is strictly liable for the conduct.  The dissent said the Court’s ruling “imposes a standard of liability that appears to be without precedent in any jurisdiction in the United States.”

As a result of this decision, it appears that an employer may be held liable for sexual harassment more easily under the IHRA than under Title VII.  Employers in Illinois should train supervisors and managers regularly on preventing discrimination and harassment in the workplace. Training should include the consequences of violating company policy. Jackson Lewis attorneys are available to answer your questions about this case and to discuss the practice of preventive employment law. We also provide train-the-trainer services and assist employers to develop tailored training programs.

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