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Bell v. City of Chicago

May 11, 2006


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Honorable David H. Coar


Terry Bell ("Bell") sued the City of Chicago for sex discrimination, hostile work environment sexual harassment, and retaliation under Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000 et seq. The complaint arose from allegedly discriminatory treatment Bell experienced at the City's Department of Public Health Uptown Clinic between 1999 and 2002. This Court granted summary judgment to the City on Bell's sex discrimination and retaliation claims. After a three day trial, the jury entered a verdict in favor of Bell and awarded her $150,000 in compensatory damages for "emotional pain, suffering, inconvenience, mental anguish, loss of enjoyment of life, and stress, if any." The City now renews its motion for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Rule 50 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. In addition, the City moves for a new trial on the issue of damages or, in the alternative, remittitur of damages to $50,000.

City's Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law

The City renews its Rule 50 motion for judgment as a matter of law pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b). Judgment as a matter of law is appropriate when "a party has been fully heard on an issue and there is no legally sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury to find for that party on that issue." Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(a)(1). In deciding the motion, the court will consider "whether the evidence presented, combined with all reasonable inferences permissibly drawn therefrom, is sufficient to support the verdict when viewed in the light most favorable to the party against whom the motion is directed.... In other words, [the court is] limited to assessing whether no rational jury could have found for the plaintiff." Emmel v. Coca-Cola Bottling Co., 95 F.3d 627, 629 (7th Cir. 1996). The court "may not step in and substitute its view of the contested evidence for the jury's." Id. at 634.

In order to prevail on her Title VII claim against the City, Bell had to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that: (1) she was subject to unwelcome sexual harassment such as sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other physical or verbal conduct that was sexual in nature; (2) the harassment was based on her sex; (3) the harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive so as to alter the conditions of her employment and create a hostile or abusive atmosphere; and (4) there is a basis for employer liability. Cooper-Schut v. Visteon Auto. Sys., 361 F.3d 421, 426 (7th Cir. 2004).

Because the alleged harasser was one of Bell's co-workers and not a supervisor, Bell had to show that the City knew or should have known about the harassment; or that the City failed to take reasonable steps to discover and rectify the harassment. Parkins v. Civil Constructors of Ill., Inc., 163 F.3d 1027, 1032 (7th Cir. 1998). But the City's emphasis on the elements of Bell's prima facie case misses the mark. After a jury trial, the relevant question is whether there was sufficient evidence to permit a reasonable jury to find that Bell was subjected to sexual harassment at the Uptown Clinic. See Harvey v. Office of Banks & Real Estate, 377 F.3d 698, 708 (7th Cir. 2004) (citing Hall v. Gary Cmty. Sch. Corp., 298 F.3d 672, 675 (7th Cir. 2002)).

The City contends that the evidence at trial failed to establish that the alleged harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a hostile work environment. Rather, the evidence demonstrated that several of Bell's co-workers, including Fred Woods, openly disliked her. The City also contends that Bell did not show that the City knew or should have known about the harassment or that it failed to take reasonable steps to discover and rectify the harassing behavior. Although Bell testified that she repeatedly reported the rude and offensive language Fred Woods used to her and in reference to her to her direct supervisor, Osagie Igbinosun, the City argues that these reports failed to put Bell's employer on notice of sexual harassment. First, the City alleges that Igbinosun was not a "supervisor" for the purposes of Title VII because he did not have the authority to hire, fire, demote, promote, transfer, or discipline his employees. Second, the City contends that Bell did not complain to Igbinosun that she was being harassed because of her sex. Instead, she complained generally about rude and obnoxious language and behavior in the workplace. According to the City, there was no reason for Igbinosun to realize the behavior was sexually harassing or was motivated because of Bell's sex, despite the sexual and gendered connotations of much of the language allegedly used. Bell made at least two Violence in the Workplace complaints, which were promptly investigated. The City contends this demonstrates that it responded to complaints when they were made, and that the lack of response to Bell's alleged complaints to Igbinosun illustrates, by inference, that she did not complain of sexual harassment. In addition, when Bell did file a complaint with the City's Sexual Harassment Office in January 2002, that office opened a file and launched an investigation immediately.

In her response brief, Bell asserts that the "jury made a reasonable decision to find that Plaintiff was subjected to a hostile work environment," repeats the elements of the sexual harassment claim, and then pronounces the jury's decision reasonable. In response to the City's argument that Igbinosun was not a "supervisor" as defined in Title VII, Plaintiff argues that Igbinosun "turned a blind eye" to the problems between Bell and Woods, which establishes that he should have known of the alleged sexual harassment. Bell then recites the definition of "supervisor" given in the National Labor Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. § 152, but provides absolutely no explanation of why this definition is relevant or should supersede Seventh Circuit case law construing "supervisor" under Title VII. Plaintiff then rehashes the trial testimony and argues that sexual harassment is evaluated based on the "totality of the circumstances," including the pervasiveness and severity of the alleged harassing conduct, and whether it is threatening and humiliating or merely offensive. See Harris v. Forklift Sys., Inc., 510 U.S. 17, 23 (1993). According to Bell, the jury appropriately evaluated the evidence and came to a reasonable verdict in light of it.

At trial, Bell testified that Woods called her "bitch," "motherfucking bitch," "whore," and "dyke" repeatedly, told her that she "didn't have a pot to piss in" and said, in front of Clinic staff, that she was "fucking a TB patient." In addition, Bell testified that Woods rammed her with his shoulder into the office wall so hard on one occasion that she was bruised. Priscilla Edwards, a co-worker from the Uptown Clinic, testified that Woods called Bell a "bitch" and a "dyke" "every day." By contrast, Woods, Pamela Crowder, Anthony Garcia and Osagie Igbinosun testified that Woods never called her names or used offensive language to her, but that Bell regularly used swear words and sexually explicit language in the workplace. The testimony, although by no means overwhelming, was sufficient that a jury could reasonably have found that Bell was subjected to conduct that was based on her sex. The evidence turned on credibility determinations with respect to the witnesses, all of whom had strikingly one-dimensional recollections of the work environment at the Uptown Clinic, which are uniquely the province of the jury.

Indeed, the crux of the City's motion is whether there was sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to find that Bell's employer knew or should have known about the alleged harassment or failed to take reasonable steps to discover and rectify it. Bell's argument that Igbinosun should be considered her supervisor has a common-sense appeal: he was her day-today superior and the person to whom she brought complaints about workplace problems. But the testimony at trial established that Igbinosun lacked authority to hire, fire, promote, demote, or transfer the employees who reported to him. He had a limited ability to discipline employees by giving them verbal and written reprimands and participating in a disciplinary process with their union representatives. His testimony did not explain what kind of supervisory role he played over his staff and how involved he was in determining their assignments and work duties. On a weekly basis, he held a staff meeting for all the field staff at the Uptown Clinic. Each year, he conducted performance evaluations of staff members. From the testimony at trial, it was apparent that the work space at the Uptown Clinic was small and that employees, including supervisors, worked in very close proximity to one another when they were on site. Igbinosun testified that he saw his staff members on a daily basis. With respect to Bell's problems at the Uptown Clinic, Igbinosun testified that Bell filed three Violence in the Workplace incident reports, but that only one involved Fred Woods; the others related to other employees. He also testified that she did not tell him she had a problem with Woods. Bell's testimony, by contrast, was that she complained to Igbinosun about Woods at least once a week and sometimes more often.

The City argues that at all relevant times it had a sexual harassment policy which required employees to notify the City's Sexual Harassment Office or their supervisors if they were being sexually harassed. As a general matter, the law will not consider an employer to have notice of the harassment "unless the employee makes a concerted effort to inform the employer that a problem exists." Silk v. City of Chicago, 194 F.3d 788, 807 (7th Cir. 1999). When an employer has a designated channel or "point person" for harassment complaints, "this person becomes the natural channel for the making and forwarding of complaints, and complainants can be expected to utilize it in the normal case." Parkins, 163 F.3d at 1035. Bell admitted that she had received a copy of the City's employee handbook and that she had signed an acknowledgment form, specifically stating that she had received a copy of the City's sexual harassment policy. Thus, under the City's policy, Bell was obligated to notify either her supervisor or the City's Sexual Harassment Office about the alleged sexual harassment. Bell contends that she informed Igbinosun about Woods' harassing conduct towards her. Igbinosun testified that Bell did not tell him she was being harassed by Woods or even, incredibly, that she had a problem with Woods. Certainly Igbinosun did not forward any of Bell's complaints to the City's Sexual Harassment Office, as he was required to do within 24 hours if an employee alleged that he or she was being sexually harassed.

An employer can be considered to have "constructive notice," however, if the harassment was sufficiently obvious. Mason v. Southern Ill. Univ., 233 F.3d 1036, 1046 (7th Cir. 2000).

"It would be unrealistic to expect management to be aware of every impropriety committed by every low-level employee. But if it knows or should have known that one of its female employees is being harassed, yet it responds ineffectually, it is culpable." Carr v. Allison Gas Turbine Div., General Motors Corp., 32 F.3d 1007, 1009 (7th Cir. 1994). Here, the case turned on questions of witness credibility. There is no dispute that when Bell contacted the City's Sexual Harassment Office in January 2002, her allegations were promptly investigated. The dispute centers, rather, on whether Bell's alleged complaints to her supervisor, Igbinosun, between 1999 and 2002 were sufficient to put him on notice--and trigger his reporting obligation under the City's sexual harassment policy--that she felt she was being sexually harassed by Woods.

The City's argument essentially is that the Uptown Clinic was an unpleasant place to work because the employees actively and openly disliked Terry Bell, who had a tendency to tell other people how to do their jobs, but that this unfriendly environment did not qualify as a hostile work environment on the basis of Terry Bell's sex. But this is the same argument the City made at trial and the jury rejected. This Court will not replace the jury's credibility determination with its own, just because it might have come to a different conclusion. The City is unhappy with the outcome of the trial, as well it might be. The solution, however, is not a motion for judgment as a matter of ...

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