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Sexual Harassment Decision Provides Guidance To Discrimination Claims In State Court

A recent case arising out of Rock Island County, Illinois (Zoepfel v. Black Hawck College, 2019 IL App (3d) 180524 (August 7, 2019)) provides useful guidance to how sexual harassment cases will be treated in state court under the Illinois Human Rights Act.  There, the court denied a claim where the plaintiff was aware that her supervisor had pornography on his desk.  However, in finding against the plaintiff, the court concluded that “the undisputed facts of record do not indicate that a reasonable person would believe that plaintiff was subjected to sexual harassment because no reasonable person looking at the undisputed facts could find any “conduct.” First, it is undisputed that plaintiff did not have authorization or reason to go into Harris’s desk at any time, so the act of placing or leaving the
pictures in his private, restricted drawer cannot be reasonably construed as “conduct” as defined in the Illinois Human Rights Act. Second, it is undisputed that Harris never committed any overt  acts toward plaintiff that could be construed as sexual harassment.”  In short, the plaintiff failed to establish a nexus to demonstrate that the behavior was directed at her.

As other cases have held, the court relied upon precedent from federal courts because it did not want to create a conflict between federal and state law with regard to the interpretation of anti-discrimination/sexual harassment laws in Illinois.  The court also noted that it would provide more deference to 7th Circuit cases sexual harassment/discrimination cases– than those in other federal circuits.

I continue to find it interest to see how state court judges will interpret civil rights claims in Illinois state courts.  Federal judges deal with these cases on a daily basis.  On the other hand, state court judges do not see these cases on a regular basis.  Also, with the new Pritzker administration, it will be interesting to see if the standard is relaxed for getting a case to a jury in Illinois.


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