Jail Employees’ Hostile Work Environment Sexual Harassment Claims Survive Summary Judgment

In Howard et al v. Cook County Sheriff’s Office et al, No. 17 C 8146, 2022 WL 1404833 (N.D.Ill. May 4, 2022), the court held that plaintiffs – female corrections officers – presented enough evidence to overcome defendants’ motion for summary judgment on their claims of hostile work environment sexual harassment (by detainees) under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

As to one plaintiff, the court explained:

The defendants contend that they are entitled to summary judgment on Howard’s hostile work environment claim because her “claim rests merely on five reported incidents over more than nine-years.” Dkt. no. 424 at 18. There are two problems with the defendants’ argument. First, the defendants contend that only reported incidents can be considered by the Court on summary judgment. This argument holds no water. There is no requirement that, to defeat summary judgment (or to prevail at trial), a party must provide evidence that is corroborated, whether by incident report forms or anything else. A plaintiff’s own testimony can be sufficient to create a genuine factual dispute. Whether that testimony is also corroborated by independent evidence involves only the weight and credibility of that evidence. But on summary judgment, “a court may not make credibility determinations, weigh the evidence, or decide which inferences to draw from the facts.” Payne v. Pauley, 337 F.3d 767, 770 (7th Cir. 2003). For now, it is enough that the plaintiffs provide evidence that, if believed, would allow a reasonable jury to find in their favor on this issue.

The second problem with the defendants’ argument is that, to establish a hostile work environment, the plaintiffs are required to show that the alleged conduct was “severe” or “pervasive,” not both. As explained above, the frequency of the conduct is one factor to consider in determining whether this element of a hostile work environment claim has been met; it is not dispositive.

A reasonable jury could find that Howard experienced a number of objectively severe incidents of gender-based harassment while working at the Jail. She reported several of these incidents: on four separate occasions, detainees masturbated at her while she was working, and on another occasion, an inmate grabbed her by her waist and pressed his penis against her backside. In addition to these reported incidents, Howard has testified that she experienced others that she did not report. For example, she testified that, while working at Stroger Hospital between September 7, 2018 and May 16, 2019, a detainee with one arm chained to the bed masturbated at her with his unchained arm. Around the same time period, she states, an inmate masturbated at her from the shower while she was in the officers’ “bubble.” She further testified that, while working in Division 9, she witnessed several detainees simultaneously masturbating at her. A reasonable jury could believe Howard’s testimony regarding these incidents irrespective of the fact that she did not contemporaneously report them.

The Court finds that this evidence is sufficient to permit a reasonable jury to find that Howard experienced conduct sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a hostile work environment. Each of these incidents alone would be extremely disturbing to a reasonable person in Howard’s position, and a reasonable jury could find that she experienced numerous such incidents during the course of her employment. In arguing that Howard’s testimony is insufficient to create a genuine dispute of fact, the defendants contend that some level of sexual misconduct is to be expected in a jail and that Howard’s experiences are not severe or pervasive in this context. A reasonable jury could find otherwise. Even if some level of sexual misconduct is to be expected in a jail, a jury could find, based on Howard’s testimony, that the level of harassment that she experienced exceeded what any reasonable person would expect in such a workplace. The Court rejects the defendants’ suggestion that a workplace—even a jail—where female employees are subjected to multiple men simultaneously masturbating at them or where detainees touch employees with their genitalia is, as a matter of law, not a hostile work environment.

Based on this, the court held that defendants were not entitled to summary judgment on this plaintiff’s claim.

Share This: