Recent Illinois Supreme Court Decision May Impact Workplace Sexual Harassment Claims

A recent decision by the Illinois Supreme Court could have significant implications for workplace sexual harassment claims.  Importantly, it will require business owners to review and possibly revise their policies in order to be more aware of how employees are being treated in the workplace.

On February 5, 1999, Donna Feleccia, a records clerk with the Sangamon County sheriff’s department (the “Department”), received a letter at work on stationery from the Illinois Department of Public Health informing her that she had been exposed to a sexually transmitted disease.  She brought this to the attention of her supervisor, and the letter was determined to be a forgery.  An internal investigation revealed the author of the letter to be Ron Yanor, a sergeant at the Department.  Feleccia was acquainted with Yanor, who worked in a different department and on a different shift.  Yanor was advised not to have further contact with Ms. Feleccia and received four days of unpaid suspension and a letter of discipline. 

Feleccia became distraught at what she deemed an inadequate response from the Department and in June of 1999 she informed the Chief Deputy that she had experienced multiple incidents of sexual harassment by Yanor prior to the letter.  She then filed a sexual harassment charge against Yanor, alleging three counts: (1) that Yanor had retaliated against her because she refused to engage in sexual activity with him; (2) that Yanor’s actions, and the Department’s response, created a hostile, embarrassing and intimidating work environment; and (3) that she experienced different terms and conditions of employment following her report of sexual harassment.  After a hearing, an administrative law judge decided that Feleccia had not established the claim, and recommended that it be dismissed with prejudice.  The Illinois Human Rights Commission adopted the recommendation regarding retaliation, but maintained that Feleccia had established sexual harassment based on a hostile work environment.  The appellate court reversed this decision, stating that Yanor was a “co-employee” of Feleccia - not a direct supervisor.  Therefore, according to statutory language, the Department was not liable for his conduct because it did take corrective actions upon learning about the offense. 

On April 16, 2009, the Illinois Supreme Court issued its opinion reversing the decision of the appellate court.  The Court held that an employer is liable for the sexual harassment of its employees, even where the offending employee is not a direct supervisor of the plaintiff.  The Supreme Court’s interpretation of the statutory language thus made the Department strictly liable for Yanor’s harassment regardless of whether the Department was aware of it or took measures to correct it.  This decision overturns previous cases which held that an employer was strictly liable only if the offending employee was the direct supervisor of the employee claiming harassment.  A direct supervisor was defined as someone who has the authority to directly affect the terms and conditions of a victim’s employment.  As a result of the Supreme Court’s decision, it is immaterial whether the offending employee is a direct supervisor, or simply a supervisor within the organization. 

The Supreme Court rejected previous federal rulings which upheld the direct supervisory relationship requirement, stating that these rulings were inconsistent with the plain language of the statute which applies to all supervisory personnel, not just direct supervisors.  The Court stated that supervisors are the public face of an employer and are the ideal personnel to be trained and made aware of the laws prohibiting sexual harassment.  The higher status of a supervisor affords him or her greater power over a lower-level employee, thus affecting the workplace environment.  The harassed employee may reasonably believe that any supervisor has a degree of influence and credibility that could affect his or her job or working conditions should the harassment be reported.  The Supreme Court’s decision is based on the notion that harassment is no longer contingent on the potential abuse of power that can be wielded by a direct supervisor. 

There are wide-ranging implications of the court’s ruling and a company’s exposure to harassment charges in Illinois is now significantly broadened.  It is imperative that management is aware of how their employees are being treated.  Complaints, even subtle ones, must be taken seriously; sexual harassment must be eliminated, not just discussed and investigated.  Management training is a key to success and an open-door policy is more important now than ever before.  This will foster early reporting of incidents, so that sexual harassment and, therefore, liability to the company, can be prevented. 

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