Dramatically expanding the reach of the Illinois Human Rights Act, the Illinois Supreme Court has held that an employer is legally responsible for a supervisory employee's sexual harassment of a worker over whom the supervisor has no authority. Some employers may think the court overreached in holding them accountable for harassment by supervisors who can't influence a victim's job status, but the ruling should make it easier for Illinois employers to recruit and retain good employees.
At issue was a civil rights complaint filed by Donna Feleccia, a records clerk at the Sangamon County Sheriff's Department who alleged that Sgt. Ron Yanor, a supervisor in the department but outside her chain of command, made a series of unwelcome sexual advances.
Ultimately, the dispute was appealed to the state Supreme Court, where the sheriff's department's lawyers did a good job of framing the issues. (By then, Ms. Feleccia and Mr. Yanor had settled out of court, leaving only the sheriff's department to answer for his acts.)
For one thing, the department argued that Illinois employers shouldn't be held to a higher standard under state law than under the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which imposes vicarious liability on employers only if the harassing supervisor has authority to affect the victim's employment. Otherwise, they insisted, every large, multilayered employer could unfairly be held strictly liable whenever a low-level supervisor sexually harasses an employee of still lower rank, whether or not the harasser has control over the employee's working environment.
The sheriff's department's lawyers also pointed out that as soon as Ms. Feleccia complained to the department about Mr. Yanor's actions, it investigated them and disciplined him, both facts that were uncontested.
But a sharply divided court set a new standard for Illinois employers, the highest in the nation. Relying on the plain meaning of the state law, the court gave short shrift to the weaker federal statute and concluded that any supervisor's "hostile work environment" sexual harassment imposes strict liability on his employer, whether or not the victim directly reports to that person and whether or not the employer did its best to identify and prevent sexual harassment. Supervisors are the public face of employers, the court reasoned, and employers are best positioned to sensitize supervisors to the legal prohibition against sexual harassment.
The court's ruling will force Illinois employers to adopt a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment and regularly train supervisors on preventing discrimination and harassment in the workplace. Although employers can't prevent all acts of harassment, responsibility must be fixed where it will most effectively stamp out evils that society cannot tolerate and help ensure a healthier work environment for all of us.
Our September 2009 Lane Report was adapted from a column published in Crain's Chicago Business on August 3, 2009. Reprinted with permission from Crain Communication Inc., Copyright 2009.
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