Punitive Damages Not Available Under Cook County Human Rights Ordinance

by Franczek Radelet P.C.

The Illinois Supreme Court recently held that the Cook County Commission On Human Relations (the “Commission”) acted beyond the scope of its authority when it awarded punitive damages to a prevailing complainant in connection with a sexual harassment charge. 

In Crittenden v. The Cook County Commission On Human Rights, the Commission found bar owner, Jimmy Crittenden, liable for sexually harassing one of his female employees.  After an administrative hearing, the evidence revealed that Crittenden made repeated inappropriate sexual remarks and engaged in other sexually suggestive conduct directed toward a female bartender.  The Commission held that this conduct was severe and pervasive such that it created a hostile work environment in violation of the Cook County Human Rights Ordinance.  It awarded the bartender back pay, compensatory damages, attorney’s fees and costs, and punitive damages for Crittenden’s egregious conduct.   Crittenden appealed that decision claiming, inter alia, that the Commission lacked authority to award punitive damages.

On appeal, both the employee and the Commission argued that the Commission has broad powers to address and remedy unlawful harassment.  And while the ordinance expressly provided for various forms of relief such as back pay, compensatory damages, interest and attorney’s fees, they acknowledged it did not specifically authorize punitive damages.  Nevertheless, they argued that since the Ordinance included additional language stating the “[r]elief may include, but is not limited to” the aforementioned remedies, the Commission had implicit authority to make such an award.  Further, they argued that the courts must defer to the agency’s own interpretation of the Ordinance. 

The Illinois Supreme Court rejected those arguments.  It first noted that the Commission, as an administrative agency, is limited to the powers granted to it by the legislature, and that it lacks any general or common law authority to act beyond what the statute creating it provides.  Since the Ordinance did not expressly authorize the Commission to award punitive damages, the only way punitive damages could be available as a remedy was:  (1) if the authority to award them could be found by “fair implication” from reviewing the Ordinance’s other provisions, or; (2) if they could be considered necessary to achieve the purposes for which the agency was created.  Neither of these factors were present in Crittenden.  Citing the Court’s long-standing position that punitive damages are not favored under the law, the Supreme Court went on to find that the Commission’s position - that it was implicitly authorized to award punitive damages - was erroneous and therefore not entitled to any deference.  Accordingly, it held that punitive damages were not an available remedy under the Ordinance.

While this is a welcome decision for employers, many discrimination and harassment claims will fall under other local, state, and federal anti-discrimination laws for which punitive or exemplary damages may be available.  Accordingly, it remains as important as ever to maintain and follow sound anti-harassment policies, to train employees on those policies, and to take prompt action to prevent and/or eliminate any workplace harassment.  

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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