Elements of a Title VII Hostile Work Environment Sexual Harassment Claim

On July 26, 2019, the 7th Circuit affirmed the district court's order granting summary judgment on a Title VII sexual harassment hostile work environment claim.  Hunt v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., No. 18-3403 (7th Cir. 7/26/2019).  The plaintiff filed a complaint in federal court alleging that a supervisor sexually harassed her by creating a hostile work environment, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII).  A Title VII hostile work environment sexual harassment claim requires a plaintiff to show: (1) the work environment was objectively and subjectively offensive; (2) the harassment complained of was based on gender; (3) the conduct was either severe or pervasive; and (4) there is a basis for employer liability.

An employer may have a defense if it can prove by a preponderance of the evidence that: (1) it exercised reasonable care to prevent and promptly correct any sexually harassing behavior; and (2) the plaintiff unreasonably failed to take advantage of the employer's sexual harassment complaint reporting procedure set out in the employer's sexual harassment policy.  Compliance by the employee with the letter of the complaint reporting procedures set out in the employer's sexual harassment policy is not the test.  The employer must prove that it took both preventative and corrective measures to remedy the sexual harassment.  Employers must take all steps necessary to prevent sexual harassment from occurring.  A prompt investigation is the hallmark of a reasonable corrective action.  The employer must also have an established effective anti-harassment policy and complaint reporting procedure in place.  If the employer has an effective sexual harassment policy and complaint reporting procedure and properly responded to an employee's complaint of sexual harassment, but its management ignored previous complaints of sexual harassment by other employees against the same harasser, then the employer has not exercised reasonable care in preventing sexual harassment.  

It should be noted that under the Illinois Human Rights Act, an Illinois employer is strictly liable for the sexual harassment committed by its supervisors or managers, whether or not they are the supervisors or managers of the victim of the sexual harassment, and whether or not the employer had prior knowledge or was notified of the sexual harassment.