In a recent decision, Sangamon County Sheriff’s Department v. Illinois Human Rights Commission, the Illinois Supreme Court held that an employer is strictly liable for sexual harassment committed by any supervisory or management employee, even though the harasser had no supervisory authority over the complainant and did not have authority to affect the terms and conditions of the complainant’s employment. The complainant, Donna Feleccia, was a records clerk with the Sangamon County Sheriff’s Department. Ron Yanor was a sergeant in the patrol division of the Sheriff’s Department. Although he was a supervisor, he and Feliccia worked different shifts in different divisions of the Sheriff’s Department, and Yanor had no supervisory authority over Feleccia. There was a three hour overlap in their shifts.

Feleccia had been working for the Sherriff’s Department for six years when the alleged sexual harassment by Yanor began. These events included: an invitation by Yanor to take her to a bar that he told her would be attended by others in the Department but was not; a forced kiss when he drove her home from that bar; an unexpected appearance at her home to give her a Christmas cup filled with candies; and an encounter where Yanor asked Feleccia if she would like to go to a hotel with him for the night. All of these events allegedly occurred in a two-month time period in November and December of 1998. Feleccia did not report any of these events to the Sherriff’s Department’s other management.

On February 5, 1999, Feleccia received a phony letter on Illinois Department of Public Health letterhead informing her that she had been exposed to a sexually transmitted disease. The letter was determined to be a hoax and was eventually traced to Yanor, who confessed, claiming that he did it as a practical joke. Shortly thereafter, the Sherriff’s Department gave Yanor a four-day suspension and a letter of reprimand. Feleccia did not believe the sanction was severe enough and told higher-level officials in the Sherriff’s Department about the prior incidents of sexual harassment by Yanor. She eventually filed a charge of sexual harassment and retaliation with the Illinois Human Rights Commission (IHRC) against the Sherriff’s Department and Yanor. The IHRC found that Feleccia had established sexual harassment based on a hostile work environment. The IHRC found as a matter of law that the Sheriff’s Department was strictly liable for Yanor’s harassment of Feleccia because he was a supervisory employee, even though he was not Feleccia’s supervisor. The Illinois Court of Appeals reversed, finding that Yanor was merely a co-employee of Feleccia since he had no supervisory authority over her. Accordingly, the appellate court found that the Sheriff’s Department was not liable because it took reasonable corrective measures upon learning of the harassment when it suspended Yanor for four days without pay and issued a letter of reprimand.

The Illinois Supreme Court based its decision on the language of the sexual harassment provision in the Illinois Human Rights Act. The first clause of that statute in section 2-102(D) prohibits sexual harassment broadly. The second clause then limits the first clause by stating that “an employer shall be responsible for sexual harassment of the employer’s employees by nonemployees or nonmanagerial and nonsupervisory employees only if the employer becomes aware of the conduct and fails to take reasonable corrective measures.”

The Court held that: “[w]here the offending employee is either a ‘nonemployee’ or ‘nonmanagerial or nonsupervisory employee,’ an employer is responsible for the harassment only if it was aware of the conduct and failed to take corrective measures.” The court found that the statutory language was unambiguous and that the facts of the case did not fall within the limitation of the second clause of the statute because Yanor was “neither a ‘nonemployee’ nor a ‘nonmanagerial or nonsupervisory employee.’“ Therefore, the Sherriff’s Department was liable for Yanor’s sexual harassment regardless of whether it knew about it, and regardless of whether it took reasonable steps once it found out.