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Swanson v. Elmhurst Chrysler Plymouth Inc.

decided: August 16, 1989.

PATRICIA D. SWANSON, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
v.
ELMHURST CHRYSLER PLYMOUTH, INC., DEFENDANT-APPELLANT



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 86 C 1586, Harry D. Leinenweber, Judge.

Easterbrook, Ripple, and Manion, Circuit Judges.

Author: Manion

MANION, Circuit Judge.

Plaintiff sued under Title VII of 42 U.S.C. ยง 2000e et seq. claiming discharge and loss of wages and benefits for refusal to submit to sexual harassment. The district court found that there had been harassment, but that the harassment had not caused plaintiff's discharge. The district court awarded the plaintiff a judgment with nominal damages of $1 plus attorney's fees.

The two questions on appeal are: (1) did the district court clearly err in finding that the sexual harassment here did not cause plaintiff's discharge?; and (2) if the discharge finding was not clearly erroneous, can plaintiff obtain nominal damages and attorney's fees even if she is precluded from Title VII equitable relief? This court answers both in the negative, and reverses the award of nominal damages and attorney fees.

I.

Patricia D. Swanson began working for Elmhurst Chrysler Plymouth, Inc. (Elmhurst) in November, 1983 as an assistant finance manager. Although she had been out of the workforce for a period of time, her husband had been in the auto sales business for many years. When he embarked on a new business she decided to return to work. She interviewed with Roger Meacham, a part-owner and general manager of Elmhurst, and Bob Brietis, Elmhurst's finance manager and a friend of Swanson's husband. As a result of the interview she was hired.

During her first six months at Elmhurst, Swanson worked directly for Brietis, but he was then replaced by Sherry Kullen. This displeased Swanson because she felt she was qualified to replace Brietis.

In late November, 1984, Swanson requested a day off for personal reasons. Kullen denied her request because Swanson had already been absent two days that week. Swanson then went to Meacham, who gave her the day off. Kullen was angry that Swanson went over her head. A few days later, after Swanson missed several more days due to illness, Meacham terminated her, allegedly due to her absenteeism, but more probably in order to placate Kullen.

But Swanson now maintains that her situation involved much more than being absent from the job. She and other witnesses at trial portrayed Meacham as one who frequently confronted her with sexually suggestive remarks, humiliating comments in the presence of other people, and physical contact. Although some of the employees described the employment atmosphere as relaxed and friendly and dismissed Meacham's conduct as harmless teasing, Swanson found the workplace hostile and sexually harassing.

II.

Although the district court recognized that sexual harassment could amount to discrimination under Title VII (following Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57, 91 L. Ed. 2d 49, 106 S. Ct. 2399 (1986)), he concluded that Swanson was an at-will employee and that she had failed to meet her burden of proof under Title VII by showing that she had lost her job for reasons related to sexual harassment. Rather, he found that although Swanson had proved that she had been sexually harassed by Meacham, the harassment was not connected with her discharge. In his initial ruling, the district court recognized that it could not assess damages for noneconomic losses since Title VII remedies offer only equitable relief, including back pay and reinstatement, but not compensatory damages. Since Swanson was no longer an employee, the court could not exercise its equitable powers to enjoin the employer from engaging in unlawful conduct, since injunctions are available only to restrain present or threatened unlawful conduct.*fn1

However, upon Swanson's motion the district court reconsidered its decision due to the Eleventh Circuit's subsequent opinion in Huddleston v. Roger Dean Chevrolet, Inc., 845 F.2d 900 (11th Cir. 1988). The district court found that Huddleston involved circumstances almost identical to Swanson's, where the plaintiff alleged sexual harassment by her auto dealership employer. The Eleventh Circuit declared that a plaintiff who alleges discrimination by sexual harassment need not demonstrate tangible economic losses to prove a Title VII violation. Although the Huddleston plaintiff did not seek reinstatement, the Eleventh Circuit held that the sexual harassment entitled the plaintiff to recover nominal damages and therefore attorney's fees.

In view of Huddleston, the district court found that Swanson also had stated a Title VII claim for sexual harassment. The district court awarded Swanson nominal damages in the amount of one dollar, plus attorney's fees because she was the prevailing party in a Title VII suit. He still refused to reinstate her, however, ...


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