Seventh Circuit Finds That the Word Bitch Can Be Actionable In Sexual Harassment Claim

In a recent federal appellate court opinion, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that the word bitch, in context, could be actionable as sexual harassment.  The plaintiff was a deputy director of the Day Reporting Center of the Cook County Sheriff’s Department.  She held this position for five years.  She claimed that her supervisor, John Sullivan, subjected her to sexual harassment and that she was fired because of her sex.  A jury found in Plaintiff’s favor and awarded her a total of $4.1 million.  Post-trial, the district court granted dismissed the case.  The County argued that the Sheriff’s General Order 3.7A set forth its sexual harassment policy and the procedures for handling complaints and investigations.  The Order also provided a formal complaint form for a complaining employee to give to her supervisor.  The form was not specific, but asked a complainant to briefly summarize the circumstances giving rise to the claim.  In turn, the supervisor receiving the report was to forward it to the Inspector General’s office for review and investigation.  Plaintiff was familiar with the Order as she taught the policy to new recruits.  Plaintiff, however, did not fill out the form regarding her complaint.  The jury heard evidence from the former director of internal affairs that an aggrieved employee could complain about sexual harassment in any number of ways, including going to their supervisor, their supervisor’s supervisor, or directly to the Inspector General’s Office.  Plaintiff also testified that there was a difference between the official department policy and the unofficial departmental practice – Plaintiff testified that in actuality, if you made a complaint, you would be demoted.  Plaintiff backed up her testimony with specific evidence.  She testified that when discussing another employee’s complaint of sexual harassment, Sullivan told her that, “he just wanted this to go away.”  Plaintiff testified with respect to her complaint, she sent a detailed letter to the sheriff’s outside counsel, who forwarded the complaint to the Inspector General.  Plaintiff provided specific information in her letter, including providing the remarks made by Sullivan, “I said shut up – you Lying Bitch.”  Plaintiff also complained to Carmalita Wagner, the executive director of the Sheriff’s training academy.  Wagner told her that she needed to “take one” for the Sheriff.  The Court reversed, reasoning that the defendants did not satisfy their burden of showing the effectiveness of their formal policy.  The Court stated that “at the end of the day, the critical question before the jury was whether the Sherriff’s Department was put on notice of the misconduct, ‘not how the employer came to have that knowledge.’”  General Order 3.7A was not the only way an employee could raise a complaint of sexual harassment in the Sheriff’s Department.
Categories: Employment Law