Alex Vlaisavich is the firm’s guest blogger. He is a full-time student at Wheaton College and an intern at Favaro & Gorman, Ltd.
The United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, EasternDivision recently granted in part and denied in part a defendant’s motion to dismiss claims related to hostile work environment, constructive discharge, breach of contract, defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The following will give an overview of the background information and address the Court’s ruling on each of the claims.
The plaintiff served as the superintendent of Defendant Taft school district inIllinois for two years. During the plaintiff’s tenure as superintendent, she had a series of encounters with the school board’s president that she claims to have been uncomfortable, inappropriate and threatening. After complaining about the board president’s behavior and requesting an audit of his financial documentation, plaintiff received negative performance evaluations and later resigned after refusing to sign a contract extension with the school district.The plaintiff has now sued both the school district and its president under claims of hostile work environment and constructive discharge under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as state-law claims for breach of contract, defamation, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Title VII Hostile Work Environment:Defendant's motion to dismiss denied.
Establishing a claim of hostile work environment under Title VII:
- Subjected to unwelcome harassment.
- Harassment was based on sex.
- The harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive so as to alter the condition of the employment and create a hostile or abusive atmosphere.
- There is a basis for employer liability.
The plaintiff establishes the first two prongs while the third condition is less clear.Isolated and minor incidents usually will not warrant sexual harassment, however, it would also be incorrect to dismiss a claim at the pleadings stage on the basis that the conduct was not abusive enough. The defendants further contend that the president of the board was not directly the plaintiff’s supervisor because he could not unilaterally fire her. However, previous precedent establishes that a person can be a supervisor even without the ability to terminate employment without approval from a superior. For these reasons, the Court denied Defendants' motion to dismiss the hostile work environment claim.
Title VII Constructive discharge based on sex discrimination: Defendant’s motion to dismiss denied
Establishing a claim for constructive discharge under Title VII:
- Plaintiff must show that was forced to resign because [her] working conditions, from the standpoint of the reasonable employee, had become unbearable.
Because it is plausible that Plaintiff suffered pervading abuse to establish constructive discharge, Defendant’s motion to dismiss is denied.
Breach of Contract: Defendant’s motion to dismiss granted
Preliminary issues to consider:
- Plaintiff names both the school district and the board president for breach of contract.
- Only the Plaintiff and school district are parties of the contract.
- Thus, the board president could not have breached the contract.
- Plaintiff seeks punitive damages.
- Illinois law does not recognize the award of punitive damages for breach of contract claims.
Plaintiff contends that the district violated a written board policy. However, violations of policy are irrelevant for breach of contract claims which deal with employment contracts. The Plaintiff has further failed to allege any injury due to the fact that the school district offered a contract extension even after performance reviews for which the plaintiff received negative reviews.Therefore, the Court dismisses breach of contract claims against the district.
Defamation: Defendant’s motion to dismiss granted
Illinois law states that "[a] local public entity is not liable for injury caused by any action of its employees that is libelous or slanderous." The SeventhCircuit confirms that this makes school districts in Illinois immune from defamation. Therefore, the Court grants dismissal of the Plaintiff’s defamation claim.
Intentional Infliction of EmotionalDistress (IIED): Defendant's motion to dismiss granted in part and denied in part
Establishing a claim for Intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED):
- The defendant's conduct was extreme and outrageous.
- The defendant either intended to inflict severe emotional distress or knew that there was a high probability that his conduct would do so.
- The defendant's conduct actually caused severe emotional distress.
From previous precedent, the Court has held that, "the nature of the defendant's conduct must be so extreme as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency and to be regarded as intolerable in a civilized community."Although the plaintiff established that the board president participated in extreme and outrageous conduct, the plaintiff failed to state an IIED claim against the district. The district board cannot be held liable for IIED for failing to stop specific instances of the board president’s conduct. Thus, the Court dismisses the plaintiff’s claim against the district.
DISCLAIMER: The above is not and should not be interpreted as legal advice. It is for informational purposes only. You should consult an attorney for legal advice. If you or someone you know are a victim of harassment and are seeking representation, click here to reach out to our firm.