On May 20, 2016, the Illinois Appellate Court, First District, affirmed a decision of the Cook County Commission on Human Rights (“Commission”) in favor of a County employee on her sexual harassment and age discrimination claims against the County under Cook County ordinance. Cook County Sheriff’s Office v. Cook County Commission On Human Rights, 2016 IL App (1st) 150718 (5/20/2016). The employee filed a claim with the Commission in which she alleged that she was subjected to ongoing sexual harassment as well as harassment on the basis of her age. She alleged that her co-worker and eventual supervisor subjected her to ongoing sexual discrimination by engaging in unwanted physical touching and sexually offensive remarks in the workplace. She also alleged that he made age-based jokes and derogatory remarks toward her in front of co-workers. The alleged sexual harassment and age-related harassment continued unabated despite the employee’s complaints to the director of her department.
The alleged sexually offensive conduct included massaging her shoulders, trying to kiss her, touching her face and hair, hugging her, and pressuring her for dates. At her administrative hearing, the employee testified that almost immediately after the co-worker became her supervisor, his unwanted physical advances and sexual remarks resumed and continued. She also testified that he regularly made negative comments and mocked her about her age in front of co-workers, such as referring to her as the “old dude,” stating that she was the “oldest ass walking around there,” that “she was older than God,” and that she wore “old ass clothes.”
Sexual harassment is an unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favors, or conduct of a sexual nature that substantially interferes with an employee’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment. Under Illinois law, an employer is liable for the sexual harassment of its supervisors, even if the employer was unaware of the harassment. In determining what sexual conduct creates a hostile work environment, courts analyze: (1) whether the behavior was severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive; and (2) whether the employee herself subjectively perceived the behavior as hostile or abusive. In this analysis, courts will consider the frequency and severity of the conduct, whether it was physically threatening or humiliating, and whether it unreasonably interfered with the employee’s job performance. The pervasiveness and severity of the conduct formed the basis of the Commission’s determination. Once the co-worker became her direct supervisor, his physical advances and comments escalated in frequency and intensity, and began to significantly impair her ability to perform her job. The court agreed with the Commission that the employee subjectively experienced a hostile work environment and that the work environment was objectively hostile and abusive.
Additionally, the appellate court expressly recognized a hostile work environment claim based on age-related workplace harassment.