Appeals Court raises the stakes significantly for employers who tolerate, neglect or ignore workplace harassment.
Last week, while many of us were packing our bags for the holiday weekend, an Illinois Court of Appeals ruled, for the first time, that a legal entity, such as a corporation, can be sued under the Illinois Gender Violence Act (IGVA or Act), for sex discrimination. By doing so, the court dramatically increased the possible liability a business could face when it mishandles workplace harassment.
The IGVA, passed in 2004, outlaws “gender related violence” as a form of sex discrimination, and empowers victims to file a lawsuit against any “person” who commits an act of gender related violence or personally encourages or assists the act or acts of violence. Unlike other sex anti-discrimination statutes, like Title VII or the Illinois Human Rights Act (IHRA), the IGVA grants courts discretion to award victims uncapped amounts of money for emotional distress and punitive damages, on top of attorney’s fees and costs. By comparison, Title VII caps distress and punitive damages, and the IHRA doesn’t authorize courts to award punitive damages at all. The IGVA also provides for longer statutes of limitations than those under other anti-discrimination laws so victims of sex discrimination have more time to sue.
Since the IGVA’s passage, employment lawyers have debated whether a business qualified as a “person” that could be found liable under the Act for harassment involving violence, since the IGVA allows for suits only against “persons.” In Gastic v. Marquette Management, Inc the Court of Appeals Third District ruled that business entities, like corporations, may be “persons” who can be sued under the IGVA “under some circumstances.”
The court’s ruling leaves open many questions, including under what specific circumstances would a business potentially face liability, and even whether other Illinois courts or the Illinois Supreme Court will embrace the ruling. Until such questions are answered, Illinois employers should expect victims of sexual harassment involving violence or threats of violence to include IGVA claims in their harassment lawsuits.
This, of course, is just another reason it’s imperative for employers to monitor their workers and those who come in contact with them for individuals with violent propensities, and to take all reasonable steps to protect their workforce from harm from such persons — for instance, by enacting and enforcing zero-tolerance policies for violence and workplace bullying, conducting anti-bullying and harassment prevention training, and investigating and responding to harassment complaints as soon as they arise.
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Gary Savine is an Illinois employment lawyer and founder of Savine Employment Law, Ltd. in Chicago. Gary regularly advises human resources professionals on recently enacted employment laws.