7th Circuit Reverses Dismissal of Hostile Work Environment Lawsuit

On October 21, 2015, the 7th Circuit reversed the dismissal of a Title VII lawsuit in which the plaintiff alleged that her employer subjected her to a hostile work environment on account of her race and national origin and retaliated against her for complaining about that discrimination.  Huri v. Circuit Court of Cook County, No. 12-2217 (7th Cir., 10/21/2015).  The district court had dismissed the plaintiff's hostile work environment claims on the grounds that they were outside of the scope of the charges of discrimination that she filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.  The filing of an EEOC charge is an administrative prerequisite to the filing of a Title VII lawsuit for discrimination or retaliation.  The purpose of an EEOC charge is to provide the EEOC and the employer with an opportunity to settle the employment dispute, and to put the employer on notice of the employee's claims.  A federal lawsuit for a Title VII claim must be reasonably related to the allegations contained in the underlying EEOC charge.  The lawsuit and charge must at least describe the same conduct and implicate the same individuals.

The defendant argued that the lawsuit should be dismissed because the underlying charges did not allege the words 'hostile work environment.'  But as the 7th Circuit stated, her charges alleged that she had been subjected to 'harassment,' and the word harassment frequently describes the conduct that defines the phrase 'hostile work environment.'  Workplace harassment encompasses all conduct that unreasonably interferes with an employee's work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.  Therefore, the plaintiff's allegations of hostile work environment set forth in her federal complaint are reasonably related to her EEOC charge, which implicates the same individuals and behavior.  Accordingly, the 7th Circuit held that the dismissal of the hostile work environment claims was erroneous.

To state a Title VII hostile work environment claim, a plaintiff must allege the following elements:  (1) she was subjected to unwelcome harassment; (2) the harassment was based on a prohibited factor, such as gender; (3) the harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive so as to alter the conditions of employment and create a hostile or abusive working environment; and (4) there is a basis for employer liability.  The 7th Circuit concluded that the complaint that the plaintiff filed in federal court satisfied these elements and put the defendant on notice of her claims.  Therefore, the dismissal of the plaintiff's complaint for failure to state a claim was also erroneous.