Police Officer’s Title VII Hostile Work Environment Sexual Harassment Claim Sufficiently Alleged, Court Holds

In Rodriguez v. Town of Cicero et al, No. 20 C 7608, 2022 WL 1773715 (N.D.Ill. June 1, 2022), the court, inter alia, held that plaintiff sufficiently alleged a hostile work environment sexual harassment claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The court summarized plaintiff’s sexual harassment allegations as follows:

The complaint alleges that several Cicero officers and employees sexually harassed Rodriguez during her time as a Cicero police officer. First Deputy Oscar Clay harassed Rodriguez from 2009 through 2018 by repeatedly calling her sexy and asking to touch her biceps. Doc. 50 at ¶ 13.

In April 2014, Rodriguez asked Town President Larry Dominick for a promotion to a full-time position. Id. at ¶ 14. After Dominick offered Rodriguez the position, he began following her around, calling her, inviting her to sports outings and lunches, and making sexually harassing comments about her appearance. Ibid.; Doc. 58 at 5. Rodriguez rejected Dominick’s advances, Doc. 58 at 5, yet his conduct persisted until October 2015. Doc. 50 at ¶ 15. In August 2017, Water District Supervisor David Duran told Rodriguez she could put a cake on his lap and eat it. Id. at ¶ 16.

Polk allegedly harassed Rodriguez on several occasions. In December 2019, he made a sexually suggestive comment regarding the cost of taking her to Las Vegas. Doc. 58 at 7, 15. In an earlier encounter, Rodriguez asked Polk to move back so she could pass by; he moved slightly, requiring her to squeeze past him “barely touching him and [her] backside not touching him,” which was a “very sexually offensive position.” Id. at 15. Rodriguez reported those two incidents shortly after they occurred. Ibid. In January 2020, in the presence of the entire unit, Polk looked Rodriguez up and down and made a comment about her being cheap. Doc. 50 at ¶ 24. A month later, Polk complimented Rodriguez’s boots. Id. at ¶ 26. Rodriguez again reported Polk’s behavior and asked whether she could cease in-person communication with him, but her request was denied. Doc. 58 at 6. Polk also followed Rodriguez around town and repeatedly called her while she was off-duty to say that he “really cared about her.”

From the decision:

Title VII’s discrimination provision encompasses the creation of a hostile work environment that is severe or pervasive enough to affect the terms and conditions of employment. To state a sex-based hostile work environment claim, a plaintiff must allege facts sufficient to show that she was: (1) subjected to unwelcome sexual conduct, advances, or requests; (2) because of her sex; (3) that were severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment; and (4) that there is a basis for employer liability. Defendants argue that Rodriguez’s allegations do not sufficiently plead a hostile work environment claim. Defendants are incorrect.

The “severe or pervasive” element of Rodriguez’s claim is in the disjunctive—the conduct must be either severe or pervasive. This means that “one extremely serious act of harassment could rise to an actionable level as could a series of less severe acts. A court addressing whether harassment is “severe or pervasive” must consider “factors like the frequency of improper conduct, its severity, whether it is physically threatening or humiliating (as opposed to a mere offensive utterance), and whether it unreasonably interferes with the employee’s work performance. In so doing, the court must bear in mind that Title VII does not impose a “general civility code and that simple teasing, offhand comments, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not amount to discriminatory changes in the terms and conditions of employment. That said, the work environment need not reach the point of hellishness to be actionable. Whether harassment was so severe or pervasive as to constitute a hostile work environment is generally a question of fact for the jury.

Rodriguez alleges that she was sexually harassed by Clay for over a decade, and was inappropriately pursued, followed, and contacted by Dominick and Polk for an extended period. Those allegations suffice, at least for purposes of a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, that the harassment she suffered was severe or pervasive.

[Cleaned up.]

The court also held that plaintiff sufficiently alleged sex discrimination, as well as retaliation for complaining about and reporting a sexually hostile work environment.

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