New Illinois Sexual Harassment Law

Employers in Illinois need to be aware of a new ruling that holds them liable for the conduct of any supervisor towards any employee – especially in regards to sexual harassment.


The Illinois Supreme Court recently ruled that an employer is responsible for sexual harassment by an employee who happens to be a supervisor, even if the employee is not in that supervisor’s chain of command.


In other words, it is sexual harassment when a supervisor or manager makes advances towards any employee, not just one who works for the supervisor.

This ruling makes it even more important than ever, that Illinois employers train supervisors and managers to prevent sexual harassment and a hostile work environment.


In Sangamon County Sheriff’s Department v. Illinois Human Rights Commission, the judge ruled on April 16, 2009 that the employer was strictly liable for any manager’s or supervisor’s actions.


Sangamon County is primarily a rural area, about 200 miles southwest of Chicago.


Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the federal anti-discrimination law, an individual is not a “supervisor” in a case unless he or she has the authority to affect the victim’s employment status directly.


However, under the Illinois Human Rights Act, no such restriction applies. The employer is liable for the conduct of every supervisor in the organization, towards each and every employee in the organization.


In this case, a female records clerk with the Sangamon County Sheriff’s Department filed a complaint of sexual harassment and retaliation against the department. She alleged that a sergeant within the department, who was not her supervisor, was harassing her.


On appeal, the judge ruled that the employer had established a hostile work environment.


Interestingly enough, initially the suit was against both the male supervisor and the employer. The male supervisor, however, was dismissed from the case after settling out of court. This left the employer alone liable for his behavior.

The judge ruled that the employer was “strictly liable” for harassment by its supervisory employee, even though he was not the victim’s supervisor – or even in her chain of command.


According to SHRM, “strict liability” means that the employer is liable for sexual harassment even if the employer did not know of the offending conduct. It applies whether the harassment is unwelcome sexual advances or a hostile work environment. The victim was awarded $10,000 in damages and $13,000 in fees and costs.


In a 4-2 ruling, the Illinois Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling — the sheriff’s department could be held strictly liable in such circumstances. This ruling in effect expanded strict liability under Illinois law.


In its ruling, the Illinois 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 court added that the employer is reasonable for the harassment by the supervisor, “regardless of whether [the employer] 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.

The court admitted that this ruling “imposes a standard of liability that appears to be without precedent in any jurisdiction in the United States.”


Under federal law, the court would have ruled that the employer was liable only if the employee’s supervisor, or another manager who could directly affect her employment, harassed the employee.


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