Illinois Supreme Court Decision Removes Barrier to Reporting Workplace Sexual Harassment

On April 21, Taft Chicago partners Tim Eaton and Jonathan Amarilio successfully argued in the Illinois Supreme Court for victims of workplace sexual harassment and for employers that try to protect those victims from further harassment.

The case concerned a former NFL player working as a contractor for Constellation NewEnergy. The former player was accused of sexually harassing an individual at several company-sponsored celebrity events. When the incidents were reported to Constellation, it conducted an internal investigation and concluded the allegations were well-founded. Constellation terminated its contract with the former player. 

That person then brought suit against Constellation under Illinois Supreme Court Rule 224. He used the Rule, in essence, to learn the identities of the woman who had accused him of sexual harassment and the persons who investigated the harassment, so that he could then sue them for defamation. The circuit court dismissed the petition, finding that he could sue Constellation, rendering unnecessary his efforts to discover other potential defendants’ identities. The appellate court reversed and reinstated his claim, at which point Taft was brought in to represent Constellation. The Illinois Supreme Court then agreed to hear the dispute.

Nominally, the case concerned whether a court may consider a qualified privilege in resolving a section 2-615 motion to dismiss a Rule 224 petition. In a 4-2 decision (one justice recused), the Supreme Court held that a qualified privilege can be raised in those circumstances when the factual grounds for the privilege appear on the face of the complaint. More importantly, the Court agreed for the first time that, as a matter of public policy, a qualified privilege against defamation claims exists for reporters of workplace sexual harassment because:

  • Victims have an interest in stopping the abuse.
  • Employers have an interest in investigating and preventing future abuse.
  • There is a definite general public interest in eradicating sexual harassment in the workplace.

The Court concluded that because the grounds for asserting qualified privilege appeared in an exhibit to this individual’s Rule 224 petition, his suit was properly dismissed.

Eaton and Amarilio serve as co-chairs of Taft’s firm-wide Appellate practice. Eaton has a distinguished career in commercial and appellate litigation, as well as arbitration, and has been involved in a number of high-profile cases. He has tried cases in both state and federal courts and before arbitration panels for over 40 years. 

Amarilio represents individuals, businesses, and state and local governments before state and federal appellate courts. He is especially experienced representing clients in the Illinois Appellate Court, the Illinois Supreme Court, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

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