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Blount v. Stroud

September 28, 2007

JERRI BLOUNT, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
v.
JOSEPH STROUD, AN INDIVIDUAL, AND JOVON BROADCASTING, WJYS-TV 62/34, AN ILLINOIS CORPORATION, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. No. 01 L 2330 Honorable Allen Goldberg, Judge Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Theis

Published opinion

Following a jury trial, defendants Jovon Broadcasting and Joseph Stroud, the owner and operational manager of Jovon Broadcasting, were found liable for "retaliation" against plaintiff Jerri Blount, a former employee of Jovon Broadcasting. The jury awarded plaintiff a total of $3,082,350 in damages, which was comprised of $257,350 for back pay, $25,000 for physical and/or emotional pain and suffering, and $2,800,000 in punitive damages. On appeal, defendants contend that: (1) the trial court erred in denying their motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict because plaintiff's retaliation claim was preemempted by the Illinois Human Rights Act (775 ILCS 5/1-101 et seq. (West 2006)); (2) the trial court erred in denying their motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict because plaintiff failed to prove her retaliation claim; (3) the trial court erred in awarding plaintiff attorney fees; (4) the trial court erred in submitting plaintiff's request for punitive damages to the jury; (5) the jury's award of $2,800,000 in punitive damages is excessive; and (6) the trial court erred in denying defendants' motion for a new trial where errors committed during the trial unfairly prejudiced defendants and tainted the jury's verdict. Because we find that the circuit court lacked the subject matter jurisdiction to entertain plaintiff's claim under section 8-111(C) of the Human Rights Act (775 ILCS 5/8-111(C) (West 2006)), we reverse.

The record discloses the following facts and procedural history relevant to this appeal. Plaintiff commenced this action by filing a complaint against defendants on February 23, 2001, which alleged, inter alia, common law claims for retaliatory discharge, defamation, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Specifically, plaintiff alleged that another Jovon employee, Bonnie Fouts, had filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in which Fouts claimed that she was the victim of racial and sexual harassment. Plaintiff claimed that she was discharged from Jovon on October 19, 2000, in retaliation for the fact that she "sided with" Fouts by agreeing to testify on her behalf. Plaintiff claimed that this retaliation was actionable under the common law tort of retaliatory discharge and under section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1991 (42 U.S.C. §1981 (2000)).

Defendants filed a motion to dismiss plaintiff's complaint pursuant to section 2-619 of the Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/2-619 (West 2006)), alleging, inter alia, that plaintiff's allegations were not cognizable as an action for retaliatory discharge under section 1981. Defendants also maintained that the Human Rights Act preempted both of plaintiff's retaliatory discharge claims.

The circuit court denied this motion to dismiss, finding that plaintiff's retaliation claims were not "inextricably linked" with claims covered by the Human Rights Act. The court found that plaintiff's claims were not based on allegations that she was retaliated against because of her race but, rather, because she refused to commit perjury and supported Fouts in her racial and sexual harassment suit. The court explained that plaintiff's refusal to perjure herself was a refusal to commit a criminal act, which placed her allegations within the scope of the traditional common law tort of retaliatory discharge as outlined by the supreme court in Palmateer v. International Harvester Co., 85 Ill. 2d 124, 421 N.E.2d 876 (1981).

On the eve of trial, plaintiff amended her complaint. Therein, plaintiff, an African-American woman, alleged that she was employed by Jovon from 1993 until October 2000, when she was terminated. At the time of her termination, plaintiff was the local programming time sales manager. Stroud, who is also African-American, owned Jovon and managed all of its operations. Fouts is a Caucasian-American who filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC and, after being given the right to sue by the EEOC, filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court alleging that she was the victim of racial discrimination and sexual harassment. Plaintiff witnessed the racial discrimination and sexual harassment of Fouts and agreed to testify on Fouts' behalf.*fn1

In count III of her complaint, plaintiff alleged that defendants retaliated against her in violation of section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act when they harassed her, intimidated her, and terminated her employment because she agreed to support Fouts and agreed to testify on her behalf. Plaintiff alleged that these actions of defendants interfered with her "at will employment contract," and were a violation of section 1981. In count V, plaintiff alleged that she was wrongfully terminated by Jovon in violation of Illinois public policy for her refusal to perjure herself in Fouts' case to protect defendants. Plaintiff also asserted claims for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress against both defendants.

Subsequently, the court conducted a jury trial of plaintiff's claims of retaliation, defamation, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Because we will not address the sufficiency of the evidence to support the jury's verdict in this appeal, we will merely summarize the evidence presented.

Stroud testified as an adverse witness that he and his wife are the sole shareholders of Jovon, which is a small television broadcasting corporation. Jovon's station is WJYS, Channel 62. WJYS broadcasts primarily religious programs, infomercials, and other advertisements. WJYS also broadcasts community-based programs and local ministry programs. Stroud insisted that Jovon is a diverse workplace that is not operated on a racial basis.

Plaintiff testified that Stroud hired her to work at Jovon as a program screener in 1993. After several years, Stroud ultimately promoted plaintiff to the sales department. There, plaintiff was responsible for selling air time to infomercial broadcasters. In addition to her salary, plaintiff was paid a commission on accounts she brought to the station based on how much air time she sold them. In May 2000, Stroud made plaintiff his local sales manager, which meant that at least four other sales representatives reported to her. At that time, plaintiff was Jovon's "best" salesperson, generating approximately $2 to $3 million in revenue for WJYS annually. During this time, Jovon paid plaintiff roughly $250,000 a year.

Bonnie Fouts testified that she began working at WJYS in March of 1999. She began in the traffic department, which monitors broadcasts to make sure that the correct programming is being aired at the correct times. In January 2000, Rick Howell, who was the only other employee in the traffic department at the time, began to act in a "hostile" manner toward Fouts. He made inappropriate comments to her, calling her racial and sexual epithets. When Fouts asked Howell to stop addressing her in that manner, Howell told her that he was her manager and that he could speak to her in any way he wished.

Fouts informed Stroud of Howell's behavior. Stroud initially offered Fouts money for her "pain and suffering and anguish." Fouts told Stroud that she did not want money; she wanted the harassment to stop. In April of 2000, Stroud moved Fouts to another department at Jovon, but the harassment did not stop. Fouts had several more discussions with Stroud about Howell's behavior. Fouts also began sending Stroud letters requesting that he do something about Howell's treatment of her, which Stroud admitted that he received. However, Stroud never discharged or disciplined Howell.

Stroud terminated Fouts' employment on August 24, 2000. Fouts felt that she was fired from a job that she "really liked" because she was being racially and sexually harassed and she reported that harassment. Fouts subsequently ...


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