An Illinois sheriff’s department employee repeatedly complained that her boss swore and screamed at her nearly every day, and in front of coworkers. Other employees saw the behavior and agreed with her that it was based on her gender. But in court, the judge’s decision wasn’t as easy as you might think.
What happened. "Parillo" was the deputy director of Cook County’s Day Reporting Center, a supervision program for nonviolent pretrial defendants that attempted to reintegrate them into society through jobs, job training, and substance abuse treatment. It also helped reduce overcrowding in the Cook County jail. She served in the job from 2002 to 2007, spending much of that time reporting to "Kennedy."
He routinely screamed at and insulted her, calling her stupid, among other, cruder terms. His behavior culminated in accusing her both of tampering with a defendant’s urine sample and of having a sexual relationship with a defendant. She was given a 5-day unpaid suspension and transferred to a secretarial job. Parillo later testified that both accusations were completely false.
She detailed her complaints in a long letter to the sheriff’s department’s in-house counsel, but no one investigated the situation. Finally, Kennedy left his position for medical reasons and Parillo was returned to her deputy director’s job. But her job was eliminated in 2007 because of budget cuts, and that’s when she sued for both sexual harassment and discriminatory discharge.
A judge in federal district court sent her case to a jury, which returned verdicts in her favor on both charges: The panel awarded her $4.1 million in damages. But the judge promptly reversed those verdicts and ruled for the county. Parillo appealed to the 7th Circuit, which covers Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin.
What the court said. Appellate judges noted that even the frequent and pervasive use of “b***h” as a name for an employee doesn’t necessarily amount to sexual harassment; for example, it can be used against men. But they agreed with the plaintiff and her witnesses that Kennedy had created a workplace that was hostile to her and other women, so they reinstated the jury’s verdict on that claim.
The wrongful discharge claim, however, was not reinstated; judges concluded her job had been legitimately eliminated. Passananti v. Cook County et al., U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, No. 11-1182 (7/20/12).
Point to remember: In the 7th Circuit, the use of an ugly epithet must be considered in context; the court has issued rulings in several notable cases that using a term doesn’t always or automatically amount to harassment.