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Stranski v. Homer Township Highway Department

September 14, 2010

ROSEANNE STRANSKI, PLAINTIFF,
v.
HOMER TOWNSHIP HIGHWAY DEPARTMENT, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rebecca R. Pallmeyer United States District Judge

Judge Rebecca R. Pallmeyer

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

On August 21, 2007, Plaintiff Roseanne Stranski ("Plaintiff" or "Stranski") filed a complaint against her former employer, Defendant Homer Township Highway Department ("Defendant"). Stranski alleged that Franklin Dunn, the Highway Commissioner at the time of her employment, sexually harassed her at work in violation of Title VII. The case proceeded to trial and on November 17, 2009, the jury returned a verdict for Defendant. Stranksi has now moved for a new trial. The court reviews the facts in a light most favorable to the jury's verdict, as "[i]f there is a reasonable basis in the record for the jury's verdict, it must stand." Savino v. C.P. Hall Co., 199 F.3d 925, 935 (7th Cir. 1999), citing Dallis v. Don Cunningham & Assoc., 11 F.3d 713, 715 (7th Cir. 1993). For the reasons explained below, Stranksi's motion is denied.

FACTS

The following facts are drawn from Plaintiff's Complaint and the trial record. Stranski began working for the Highway Department on August 10, 1993 as a part-time employee, hired to answer the phone and file paperwork. (Am. Compl. ¶ 5; Trial Tr. 5, 11, Aug. 12, 2009.) Dunn directly supervised Stranski, and Stranski interacted with him everyday.*fn1 (Trial Tr. 6, 12, 82, Aug. 12, 2009.) Stranski testified that beginning in 1999, Dunn sexually harassed her repeatedly. (Am. Compl. ¶ 7; Trial Tr. 12--13, 26, Aug. 12, 2009.) She alleged that Dunn touched her neck and leg, pinched her buttocks, pulled her earrings, and grabbed her waist on various occasions. (Trial Tr. 12--13, 40, 50--51, Aug. 12, 2009.) She testified that Dunn's touching was always unwelcome, providing one example as an illustration:

[Dunn] would come up behind me, and would grab the back of my neck and rub the back of my neck. And then he would bend down really close to my ear, and he would whisper in my ear . . . and would say, "Cold hands, warm heart. Don't you just love this Rosie?" (Trial Tr. 16, Aug. 12, 2009.) She testified that in response to these episodes, she told Dunn: "'Frank, don't touch me. Frank, what would your mother think of this?'" (Trial Tr. 17, Aug. 12, 2009.) Dunn acknowledged that he did in fact touch Stranski's neck once, but claimed she responded by saying: "'Oh, that feels good.'" Dunn denied ever whispering in Stranski's ear, playing with her earrings, or touching her buttocks. (Trial Tr. 18--20, 34, 66, Aug. 9, 2009.) Both Stranski and Dunn agreed that some employees at the Department referred to Dunn as a "dirty old man," but Dunn stated he would simply "laugh it off" when people in the office referred to him that way. (Trial Tr. 44, 77, Aug. 9, 2009; Trial Tr. 43, Aug. 12, 2009.) From Dunn's perspective, the office was "one big happy family" (Trial Tr. 20, Aug. 9, 2009) that "played together," and no one was "afraid" of him. (Trial Tr. 77, Aug. 9, 2009.)

Stranski's testimony was at odds with this benign characterization. She claimed that she was embarrassed and humiliated by Dunn's behavior. (Trial Tr. 25, 29, 31, 33, 47, 50, Aug. 12, 2009.) According to Stranski, Dunn asked her to sit on his lap many times at work. She claimed that she once overheard Dunn tell a potential job applicant on the phone that "[t]he only qualification to be a secretary for the highway department was to sit on his lap all day." (Trial Tr. 32, 45, Aug. 12, 2009.) Stranski testified that on March 30, 2004, Dunn approached her with "tickets" in his hand and said, "'before I give them to you, you'll have to sit on my lap,'" at which point she "blew up," grabbed a pair of scissors in her desk drawer and threatened to injure Dunn unless he stayed away from her.*fn2 (Trial Tr. 55, Aug. 12, 2009.) Dunn admitted that he asked Stranski to sit on his lap "a couple of times," but, he insisted, she never complained or objected. (Trial Tr. 20, 22, Aug. 9, 2009.) As to the incident with the scissors, he recalled the circumstances differently:

When she come [sic] into the office . . . I was sitting at her desk . . . . At that point she went past me and angrily said, "You are sitting in my chair." So I said, "Okay.

It looks like if you want it back, you are going to have to sit on my lap." (Trial Tr. 136, Aug. 11, 2009.) Dunn explained that his statement was intended as only a "humorous joke." (Trial Tr. 17, Aug. 9, 2009.)

The jury heard conflicting testimony about the nature and extent of the sexual jokes occurring at the office. Stranski testified that on more than one occasion when she and a co-worker, Richard Kerley, worked in a file room together, Dunn would walk in, turn off the lights, and hold the door closed so that they could not get out, suggesting to Stranski and Kerley: "Oh, now you can have sex together." (Trial Tr. 37, Aug. 12, 2009.) According to Dunn, he did close the door and turn the lights off on Stranski and Kerley, but he intended it to be a humorous prank and denied ever holding the door shut or joking about the two having sex.*fn3 (Trial Tr. 35--36, Aug. 9, 2009.) Yet Stranski testified that Dunn often made inappropriate sexual jokes at her expense.*fn4 She recalled, for example:

Frank had two decks of cards. One deck was large-breasted women, and the other deck was small-breasted women. Frank would come out of his office and put the two decks of cards in front of me with his two hands, one in each hand, and he'd go: "Okay, Rosie. Which one are you, [a] big-breasted [woman] or [a] little-breasted [woman]?" (Trial Tr. 47, Aug. 12, 2009.) Dunn himself admitted to having nude pictures of women that he kept in his desk, but explicitly denied showing any pictures to Stranski, and claimed that if she saw the pictures, she must have looked through his office drawers on her own. (Trial Tr. 85--86, Aug. 9, 2009.) Dunn similarly denied comparing Stranski to women on the deck of cards, as she suggested. (Trial Tr. 86, Aug. 9, 2009.) Stranski claimed that Dunn also received faxes at the office that had "drawings on them of people engaging in sex or a funny . . . sexual-type joke," and sometimes dropped the pictures or jokes on her desk.*fn5 (Trial Tr. 48--49, Aug. 12, 2009.) When asked at trial by opposing counsel if he kept "cartoons of adults being involved in sexual activities together" in his office at work, Dunn did not completely deny such behavior; rather, he responded: "No, not available . . . . They were kept in an area of which was not for public knowledge or notification . . . . They would be kept in my office, which is a private office, in a file, and nobody was supposed to be in there." (Trial Tr. 78--79, Aug. 9, 2009.)

At trial, Defendant pointed out that Stranski never made any written or oral complaints about Dunn's behavior to anyone in the Highway Department. (Trial Tr. 99, Aug 12, 2009.) There was conflicting testimony about the existence of a sexual harassment policy that would have invited or encouraged such complaints. Stranski testified that she did not know of the Department's policy, nor did she see one posted anywhere in the office. (Trial Tr. 58, Aug. 12, 2009.) Dunn testified that the Department did have a sexual harassment policy, though it was not written until sometime in 2003. (Trial Tr. 73, Aug. 9, 2009.) Dunn acknowledged that he himself was the highest-ranking elected official at the Department to whom sexual harassment complaints should have been addressed, but Defendant noted that Stranski could also have complained to another elected official, Ethel Rodriguez (the clerk of Homer Township). (Trial Tr. 6, 9, Aug. 9, 2009; Trial Tr. 108, 127--28, Aug. 12, 2009.)

Stranski explained to the jury that upon learning that Kerley was no longer employed at the Highway Department on August 8, 2004, she decided she had to quit because she thought of Kerley as her "protector" from Dunn. (Trial Tr. 66, 111, Aug. 12, 2009.) Defendant offered evidence that Stranski had personal reasons for resigning, unrelated to her experience with Dunn. Dunn testified that Stranski "never indicated that she was resigning because he sexually harassed her," and that she told him instead that she needed to care for her elderly parents. (Trial Tr. 166--67, Aug. 11, 2009.) Stranski rejected Dunn's assertion about her family obligations, but acknowledged that she did not tell Dunn that she was resigning because of his behavior. (Trial Tr. 73--74, 113, Aug. 12, 2009.) Stranski ultimately resigned from the Highway ...


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