Employment-Seventh Circuit Upholds Employee’s Claim Of Sexual Harassment

In Passananti v. Cook County, No. 11-1182 (7th Cir. 2012), the plaintiff, Kimberly Passananti (“Passananti”), was the deputy director of the Cook County Day Reporting Center (“DRC”) from 2002 until 2007. For several years, her supervisor was DRC director John Sullivan. After losing her job in 2007, Passananti sued, claiming that Sullivan subjected her to sexual harassment and that she was fired because of her sex. A jury agreed with her and awarded her a total of $4.1 million in damages: $4 million in compensatory damages against Cook County and $70,000 in compensatory damages and $30,000 in punitive damages against Sullivan. However, despite the jury verdict, the district court granted the defendants’ motion for judgment as a matter of law, and entered judgment for the defendants (so no monetary award for Passananti). Passananti appealed.

In analyzing the case, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals (the “Court”) assumed: (1) that Sullivan repeatedly and angrily called Passananti a “bitch” to her face and in front of their co-workers; (2) that in 2005, he trumped up charges against her for violating a DRC policy against tampering with supervisees’ urine samples; and (3) that he fabricated an accusation that she had had sexual relations with a supervisee. As a result of Sullivan’s accusations, Passananti was temporarily transferred and ultimately sustained a five-day unpaid suspension. Sullivan left the DRC in July 2006. Passananti stayed on, but in 2007, she lost her job when her position as DRC deputy director was eliminated as part of county-wide budget cuts.

On Passananti’s sexual harassment claim, the Court reversed the district court’s ruling and reinstated the jury’s verdict as to liability, which the Court concluded was $70,000 against Cook County. The Court said that the jury could reasonably treat the frequent and hostile use of the word “bitch” to be a gender-based epithet that contributed to a sexually hostile work environment. Passananti also presented sufficient evidence to allow the jury to find that the gender-based harassment she suffered was severe and pervasive, and that she did not unreasonably fail to take advantage of available corrective measures in her workplace. However, the Court affirmed the district court’s decision to set aside the jury’s verdict on Passananti’s discriminatory termination claim, which simply lacked any evidentiary support.