Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Cook County Commission on Human Rights Has Limited Damage Options

A lot of employers in Chicago and its suburbs don’t know that, in addition to the federal human rights laws and the Illinois Human Rights Act, residents of Cook County have a third venue in which to raise a complaint – the Cook County Commission on Human Rights. In a case that reached the Illinois Supreme Court, the Commission ordered some $50,000.00 in lost wages, compensatory and punitive damages against a bar owner. The Supreme Court determined that the Commission did not have statutory authority to award punitive damages and reversed.

That’s interesting (sort of), but not as interesting as the facts used by the Commission to measure credibility. The case, involving sexual harassment claims, was a classic “he said, she said”. The bar owner denied harassing the employee, and brought forward a series of employees and patrons who denied the claimed incidents occurred. The Commission determined that the bar owner was not credible because he appeared to be nervous and continuously swiveled his chair sharply while he testified.

I could hardly imagine that someone being called to testify in front of the Commission might not be nervous, and I've never heard that swiveling a chair (or rocking back and forth in it as I am want to do) marks anything other than having a fair amount of nervous energy. In fact, this type of credibility assessment simply provides more fuel for the "Commission and its ilk are simply pro-plaintiff to the point of silliness" fire that burns in the minds of Chicago employment defense lawyers.

Lastly, employers in Chicago, and not just Cook County, should be aware that there is a fourth entity that provides coverage for civil rights violations – the Chicago Commission on Human Rights. Chicago employers need to be aware not only of various fora in which they could be charged, but the general standards to which the complainants will be held versus the companies that employ them.

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