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Williams v. Sec. of State Merit Com.

OPINION FILED DECEMBER 30, 1986.

UYLESSEE WILLIAMS, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,

v.

THE SECRETARY OF STATE MERIT COMMISSION ET AL., DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Sangamon County; the Hon. Richard E. Mann, Judge, presiding.

PRESIDING JUSTICE SPITZ DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

Rehearing denied January 28, 1987.

Plaintiff, Uylessee "Pete" Williams, appeals from an order of the circuit court of Sangamon County, sitting in administrative review (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 110, par. 3-101 et seq.), which affirmed the decision of defendant, the Secretary of State Merit Commission, discharging plaintiff from his position with defendant, the Bank Sales Division of the Secretary of State. Plaintiff contends on appeal that the circuit court erred in affirming the Merit Commission's decision and, alternatively, that the sanction of discharge is too severe on the facts of this case. For the reasons that follow, we affirm the judgment of the circuit court.

In December of 1981, plaintiff was temporarily employed by the Secretary of State's office to work in the CRT section of its Bank Sales Division (Bank Sales). Plaintiff was subsequently assigned to the data entry section of the State Library. Then in December of 1982, plaintiff was transferred back to the CRT section of Bank Sales.

On September 2, 1983, five female Bank Sales employees filed complaints of sexual harassment against the plaintiff and a co-worker with the assistant administrator of Bank Sales. Afterward, the Secretary of State's office investigated the allegations. Then on September 12, 1983, the plaintiff and the co-worker that allegedly participated in the sexual harassment were provided with written charges of sexual harassment and were suspended pending discharge. On October 6, 1983, the director of Bank Sales initiated discharge proceedings against the plaintiff. Shortly thereafter, plaintiff received a letter informing plaintiff that he had been formally discharged. The 15 written charges relating to plaintiff's discharge consisted of incidents from February of 1983 to September of 1983, involving plaintiff's lewd, vulgar, and sexually suggestive comments, overtures and jokes, and his offensive physical actions and gestures, as alleged by the five female employees.

In accordance with the provisions of the Secretary of State Merit Employment Code, plaintiff appealed the discharge to the Merit Commission. A hearing was held before a Merit Commission hearing officer on November 28, 1983, and the following evidence was adduced. Testimony disclosed that the plaintiff worked in the CRT section of the Secretary of State's Bank Sales Division. The Bank Sales Division consisted of a large open area with offices located along two walls. Approximately 30 to 50 people worked at desks in the open area. The CRT section of Bank Sales is an open alcove located between offices on one of the walls. The plaintiff was one of four employees that worked in the CRT section during the summer of 1983.

The Secretary of State called as witnesses the five female employees that filed complaints of sexual harassment against the plaintiff. The complainants all worked in the open area of the Bank Sales Division. Their duties frequently required them to go into the CRT section, where computers were located and the plaintiff worked. Each complainant testified to numerous incidents of sexual harassment by the plaintiff and a co-worker during the summer of 1983. In discussing these incidents, the complainants testified to occasions when the plaintiff: made "vulgar," sexually related comments to them; questioned them about their sexual activities; made offensive and sexually suggestive noises, gestures, and physical movements; made "vulgar" and offensive comments regarding their bodies and "sexual appearances"; made "lewd" sexual overtures; attempted to "grab" or touch parts of their bodies; and told "vulgar sex jokes." The complainants testified that a co-worker of plaintiff's in the CRT section often participated in the aforementioned incidents. The complainants stated that they found the plaintiff's comments and conduct upsetting and embarrassing. The complainants filed complaints against the plaintiff with the assistant administrator of Bank Sales on September 2, 1983. The complainants stated that they did not initially complain about the plaintiff's behavior because they did not believe anything would be done about it.

The Secretary of State also called George White, the assistant administrator of Bank Sales, to testify. White stated that on September 2, 1983, a female Bank Sales employee complained to him that the plaintiff had been making sexual comments to her. White asked the employee if any of her co-workers had similar complaints. The employee stated that there were, and on White's request, she subsequently brought three of her co-workers to White's office. White then asked the women to write their complaints against the plaintiff and he contacted the deputy director of Bank Sales.

The plaintiff then testified in his own behalf. He denied making any lewd, vulgar, or suggestive comments to the complainants. Further, plaintiff stated that he never engaged in any offensive conduct or attempted to touch or grab the complainants.

Plaintiff testified that his co-workers regularly engaged in vulgarity and explicit sexual conversation. He further testified that sexual and racial jokes were told by male and female employees on a daily basis. Plaintiff stated that the employees used such foul language that he started a "cuss box." He explained that each person that used a "cuss word" had to deposit two cents into the box, and each person that told a "dirty joke" had to deposit a quarter. The money was used to purchase pizza at lunch. The plaintiff did not claim that the complainants were involved in any of the aforementioned activities. He did state, however, that four female co-workers, including two of the complainants had "sex magazines, which showed off the male anatomy" at work.

Plaintiff testified that he never received any complaints about his conduct from co-workers or supervisors until the day of his discharge. He further testified that he had never been disciplined by the Secretary of State's office prior to his discharge.

The plaintiff also called the director of Bank Sales, who testified that plaintiff had never been previously disciplined while working for the Secretary of State's office. In addition, the plaintiff called several co-workers who testified that they had not been sexually harassed by the plaintiff, nor had they heard him make sexually related comments or overtures to others in the office.

At the conclusion of the hearing, the hearing officer issued his findings and recommendations. The hearing officer found that one of the charges had not been proved, and that the remaining 14 charges had been partially proved, not warranting discharge. The hearing officer recommended remandment for further evidence to determine the severity of the disciplinary action that should be taken against the plaintiff. Thereafter, the Merit Commission reviewed oral, documentary, and written evidence presented at the hearing together with the record and findings of the hearing officer. The Merit Commission determined that one charge had not been proved but that the 14 remaining charges had been proved by a preponderance of the evidence and warranted immediate discharge. In making its determination, the Merit Commission noted that the charges proved were of a "sufficiently serious nature" so as to preclude the use of progressive corrective discipline by the Secretary of State.

Thereafter, plaintiff filed a complaint in the circuit court of Sangamon County pursuant to section 3-101 et seq. of the Code of Civil Procedure (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 110, par. 3-101 et seq.), seeking administrative review of the Merit Commission's decision. Subsequently, the circuit court affirmed the decision of the Merit Commission. Plaintiff then filed a motion for reconsideration which was denied. Plaintiff now appeals from the judgment of the ...


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