On June 29, 2016, the Illinois Appellate Court, First District, affirmed a judgment entered by the circuit court which awarded the plaintiff attorneys’ fees and litigation costs in the amount of $330,412 after a jury trial on her retaliation and sexual harassment claims. Mendez v. The Town of Cicero, 2016 IL App (1st) 150791 (6/29/2016). The plaintiff alleged that her employer transferred her to an undesirable position in retaliation for reporting the alleged sexual harassment of a co-worker by a manager. The jury agreed that the transfer was retaliatory, but did not award her any monetary relief for alleged emotional distress or lost future earnings. The court granted the plaintiff’s equitable claim for reinstatement to her previous position. The defendant contended on appeal that the fee award was excessive given the absence of a monetary award. The appellate court held that the fee award was reasonable because the plaintiff was the prevailing party and the order of reinstatement was more than a nominal victory. The order of reinstatement vindicated her right under the Illinois Human Rights Act to be free from retaliation for reporting sexual harassment.
The plaintiff alleged that she observed a manager sexually harass a co-worker. She reported the sexual harassment to her employer. Three months later, the employer transferred her to a clerical position (with the same salary and benefits). She filed a charge of discrimination with the Illinois Department of Human Rights in which she alleged sexual harassment and retaliation under the Illinois Human Rights Act. Later she filed a lawsuit in which she sought punitive and compensatory damages as well as back pay, front pay, lost future wages, prejudgment interest and attorneys’ fees and costs. She also sought reinstatement to her former position. The jury found in favor of the plaintiff on her retaliation claim, but declined to award her monetary damages. Under the Illinois Human Rights Act, a court may award attorneys’ fees and costs to the prevailing party. The plaintiff was the prevailing party because she proved her retaliation claim. In rejecting the defendant’s argument that the amount of the fee award was disproportionate to the relief obtained by the plaintiff, the appellate court stated that a defendant who elects to aggressively litigate a claim is not well-positioned to criticize the correspondingly greater fees a plaintiff is required to incur to pursue her claims.