By Tom M. Cramer, J.D.
Sexual harassment does happen in the workplace today, even though members of both sexes have been bombarded with stories about what it is and why it is illegal. In one of Cramer Law’s recent cases, two women, who worked in the same nationally known non-profit organization, claimed they were victims of sexual harassment. They each had very specific stories, however, their allegations also contained similarities, including the involvement of the same male vice president.
In a June 10, 2019, ruling, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois found in favor of both women in their claims against the national organization and is allowing their lawsuit to proceed. How Cramer Law’s professionals identified the various instances of sexual harassment, including retaliation against one of the women, offers an excellent overview of the diverse forms that harassment can take in the workplace.
One of the women had only worked at the non-profit for a little more than a year, while the other woman had been there for 10 years. Both of them found their experiences resulted in a hostile work environment, and the behavior extended to the firing of one woman plus the nonpayment of a promised bonus.
The claims for both plaintiffs were based on Title VII and the Illinois Human Rights Act. The employee with less than two years at the nonprofit, Plaintiff A, also brought a claim that her rights under the Illinois Wage Protection and Collection Act had been violated.
Plaintiff A claimed she was promised a raise after six months of employment if she reached “certain, but undefined” goals in her fundraising for the organization. Even though the team of employees she had working with her were terminated, Plaintiff A received a strong review after six months and her annual review was positive as well. But her bonus did not materialize. In fact, even though she had met the level of fundraising she was expected to achieve, she was placed on probation by her immediate supervisor.
While attending a meeting in Chicago, Plaintiff A claimed she had experienced an “uncomfortable” hug from the male vice president named in the complaint. She felt he had pressed “his body against her breasts.” During that same meeting, he stared at Plaintiff A’s breasts and did not look her in the eye. He also was “hostile and rude” in another meeting with Plaintiff A, and she left that meeting in tears.
Plaintiff A began asking a few fellow workers about the male vice president’s behavior, and other women voiced that they had experienced similar treatment. Plaintiff A felt constant stress that significantly affected her work life. Following her questioning of others, things began to turn south dramatically, and Plaintiff A was terminated even though she had met her fundraising goals. She also never received her raise.
Plaintiff B, the woman who had worked at this nonprofit for 10 years, reported directly to the male vice president who had harassed Plaintiff A. Plaintiff B claimed this individual called her into his office on many occasions and stared at her breasts. He also spread his legs suggestively during meetings with Plaintiff B and other female employees. In other instances, he yelled at Plaintiff B as well as other women in meetings. However, he never yelled at men. Plaintiff B felt this behavior created a harassing work environment that affected her work-life and emotional well-being.
Plaintiff B did complain to both the organization’s president and to the president’s daughter. But no action was ever taken against this male vice president. In fact, Plaintiff B also alleged that this vice president engaged in an affair with a female employee, and that female employee was ultimately promoted. Plaintiff B said she was told by the male vice president that she would not be considered for promotion because she did not “play nice.”
Plaintiff B felt this treatment was harassment and abuse. She would not sleep with the vice president and she would not move up in the organization as a result. She resigned because she believed this hostile environment would never change. She also felt that if she did not resign, the vice president would find a way to punish her.
In its defense, the nonprofit sought to dismiss Plaintiff B’s claim that a hostile work environment existed, saying no specific factual allegations were made. It also claimed that the vice president had not solicited sex from Plaintiff B and that a man’s spreading his legs or staring at a woman’s breasts are too “innocuous to support a claim of sexual harassment.” The nonprofit also noted that Plaintiff B waited more than 10 years before quitting her job, so these behaviors could not have reasonably interfered with her work performance. However, Plaintiff B said the behavior had seriously affected her work-life and her emotional well-being.
The judge’s ruling found that it was reasonable to believe that the treatment Plaintiff B received from this vice president, including his staring at her breasts and how he spread his legs while seated in meetings with her, would affect her work performance. And even though he never solicited sex from her, Plaintiff B was not required to make such an allegation. In fact, the judge felt the vice president implicitly solicited sex through his body language. Plus, the fact that other women had made similar allegations about this vice president suggested that his actions were not accidental. He had a purpose in mind.
Regarding the retaliatory actions the nonprofit made toward Plaintiff A in firing her, the judge found that retaliation is actionable even if it is in response to complaints made outside of the official avenues. The nonprofit had argued that it had asked Plaintiff A to resign before she made a formal complaint.
The nonprofit did not specifically address the Illinois Human Rights Acts’ elements in its response to Cramer Law’s complaint because it noted that the state act is so similar to Title VII. The judge did not support this approach by the nonprofit’s legal counsel. He noted that the organization’s move to dismiss claims related to the state law via “a single, sweeping reference” would not suffice.
And regarding Plaintiff A’s request under the Wage Payment and Collection Act for her bonus, the judge found that the nonprofit did not fire Plaintiff A when it fired her team. Thus, because it retained her, the organization must have believed she was performing within expectations, even though her goals were “undefined.” The nonprofit failed to point to any justification for not awarding the bonus.
Cramer Law’s professionals used a number of elements to show that both Plaintiff A and Plaintiff B were sexually harassed, whether it involved the behavior of the male vice president or in Plaintiff A’s case, the promise of a bonus payment that never came because she was terminated based on gender. In addition, the effects that the hostile work environment had on both women were evident to the judge. Sexual harassment can appear in a variety of ways, and as Plaintiff B’s case demonstrates, it can last a number of years until some action to stop it occurs.