by Meganne Trela (Summer 2016)

Despite ambiguities in the Illinois Human Rights Act (“IHRA”), the Second District Appellate Court in Illinois held that the IHRA allows individuals to file disability harassment claims in Rozsavolgyi v. City of Aurora, 2016 IL App (2d) 150493. In that same ruling, the Second District held that municipalities can assert immunity for claims seeking damages for violations of the IHRA under the Local Governmental and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act (“Tort Immunity Act”).

Plaintiff, Patricia Rozsavolgyi, was terminated after 20 years of employment with the City of Aurora (the “City”) for making a statement to a coworker in which she used the word “idiots.” Plaintiff suffered from unipolar depression, anxiety, panic attacks and partial hearing loss. After her termination she sued the City, alleging disability harassment under the IHRA including claims of failure to accommodate, disparate treatment, retaliation, and hostile work environment. Plaintiff alleged her coworkers engaged in an intentional attempt to agitate, embarrass, humiliate, degrade, harass, and provoke her through name calling, notes, spitting on her car window, and creating false rumors. Plaintiff claimed that she reported this behavior to her supervisor and union representative. Plaintiff’s complaint sought back pay, front pay, the value of lost benefits, compensatory damages, reinstatement with full seniority, and attorney fees and costs.

The City argued that disability harassment and failure to accommodate claims were not cognizable civil rights violations under the IHRA. In litigating the dispute, three questions arose and were certified to the Second District: (1) Does Section 2-102(A) of the IHRA prohibit disability harassment and are refusal to accommodate and hostile work environment claims cognizable civil rights violations under that section? (2) If disability harassment is prohibited, does section 2-102(D) of the IHRA apply and does the Plaintiff bear the burden of proof? (3) Does the Tort Immunity Act apply to a civil action brought under the IHRA?

In an expansive ruling, the Second District held that (1) Section 2-102(A) of the IHRA prohibits disability harassment; (2) Section 2-102(D) of the IHRA applies to disability harassment claims made under the IHRA; and (3) the Tort Immunity Act allowed municipalities to assert immunity with respect to a request for damages under the IHRA but not to a request for equitable relief.

On the first question, the Second District addressed whether Section 2-102(A)’s prohibition against unlawful discrimination in the terms, conditions, or privileges of employment encompassed harassment on the basis of a protected characteristic (such as a disability). Finding that the text of the section was ambiguous, the Second District looked to the purpose of the statute to conclude that the section supports claims of disability harassment. The Second District determined that the phrase “terms, privileges or conditions of employment” could easily be read to include disability harassment. Additionally, the Second District determined that the broad nature of the section reflected the intent of the legislature to encompass the full spectrum of discriminatory treatment, including a refusal to provide a reasonable accommodation. Thus, under the IHRA, disability harassment was prohibited and reasonable accommodation claims could be brought as separate claims under that section.

After finding that a disability harassment cause of action existed under the IHRA, the court determined that Section 2-102(D) of the IHRA was applicable to claims of disability harassment. Section 2-102(D) specifically addresses only sexual harassment claims and, in those cases, the plaintiff bears the burden of proving that an employer was aware of the harassment and failed to take corrective measures against the harassment. The court reasoned that the Illinois Human Rights Commission (“Commission”) utilized the framework of Section 2-102(D) of the IHRA in cases of national origin harassment. Accordingly, the court found that Section 2-102(D) of the IHRA was applicable to claims of disability harassment and the Plaintiff bore the burden of proof.

Lastly, the court held that municipalities could assert immunity with respect to a request for damages under the Tort Immunity Act. This immunity, however, did not apply to a request for equitable relief. In making this finding, the court declined to follow its prior holding which determined that the Tort Immunity Act applied only to tort actions and was not applicable to alleged constitutional violations.

The Second District reasoned that the Illinois Supreme Court rejected its prior holding that the Tort Immunity Act “categorically excludes” nontort actions in Raintree Homes Inc. v. Village of Long Grove, 209 Ill. 2d 248 (2004). The Second District further reasoned that the term “injury” as used in the Tort Immunity Act “includes any injury alleged in a civil action, whether based upon the Constitution of the United States or the Constitution of the State of Illinois, and the statutes or common law of Illinois or of the United States.” 745 ILCS10/1-204. Claims brought under the IHRA are grounded in the Illinois Constitution; thus, the City could assert immunity with respect to the Plaintiff’s request for damages. The Plaintiff, however, could still recover requested equitable relief such as back pay, front pay, lost benefits, or reinstatement.

The expansive reach of the Second District’s opinion was somewhat limited by its determination that immunity could be asserted by local government entities for claims arising out of alleged constitutional violations. However, this may not be the final word on the issue, as these specific questions have not been considered by other Illinois appellate courts or the Illinois Supreme Court.