493 F.3d 893 (7th Cir. 2007), 05-1310, Huff v. Sheahan

Docket Nº:05-1310.
Citation:493 F.3d 893
Party Name:Yorli P. HUFF, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Michael F. SHEAHAN, in his official capacity as Sheriff of Cook County, Defendant-Appellee.
Case Date:July 16, 2007
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit
 
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493 F.3d 893 (7th Cir. 2007)

Yorli P. HUFF, Plaintiff-Appellant,

v.

Michael F. SHEAHAN, in his official capacity as Sheriff of Cook County, Defendant-Appellee.

No. 05-1310.

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit.

July 16, 2007

Argued December 1, 2006

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 97 C 4568-Joan B. Gottschall, Judge.

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Jeffrey I. Cummings (argued), Sharon K. Legenza, Miner, Barnhill & Galland, Chicago, IL, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

Donald R. Hallsten, Jr., (argued), Office of the Cook County State's Attorney, Chicago, IL, for Defendant-Appellee.

Before EASTERBROOK, Chief Judge, and RIPPLE and MANION, Circuit Judges.

RIPPLE, Circuit Judge.

Yorli Huff brought this action for damages for race and sex discrimination that she claimed to have suffered during her employment with the Sheriff's Department of Cook County, Illinois. She named various defendants in their individual and personal capacities. A jury trial resulted in a verdict in favor of all the defendants on all claims. The district court later denied a Rule 59(e) motion for a new trial and a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law. Ms. Huff timely appealed the denial of this motion and the underlying judgment against her. She seeks review only of her Title VII claim against her former

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employer, Cook County Sheriff Michael Sheahan ("the Sheriff"). For the reasons stated in this opinion, we reverse the judgment of the district court and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I

BACKGROUND

A. Facts

Ms. Huff was employed by the Cook County Sheriff's Department and was assigned to the Metropolitan Enforcement Group ("MEG"), a separate, multi-jurisdictional narcotics task force staffed by personnel of multiple law enforcement agencies including the Sheriff's Department. Ms. Huff began working in MEG in 1992 and remained there until 1997. For a period of several years, while detailed to MEG, Ms. Huff worked under the supervision of Andrew Douvris and Fred Guerra, who were also Sheriff's Department personnel.

Ms. Huff alleged a variety of serious claims of discrimination on the part of her supervisors at MEG: using, on a regular basis, racial and gender epithets in reference to her and to other African-Americans;1 providing her with inferior equipment and assignments; frustrating her request for a transfer to another department; harassing her by paging her and checking on her location at all times; denying her requests to use flex-time benefits available to others; isolating her from other African-Americans in the office with explicit instructions that she not socialize with them;2 and marginalizing her to such a degree that she eventually lost her position in the Sheriff's Department. Ms. Huff claims that, during this time, she documented some of the incidents, spoke to Mr. Guerra and Mr. Douvris about the harassment and reported the discrimination to her MEG supervisor, all to no avail. She, and several other employees assigned to MEG, stated that the Sheriff's Department never informed them about proper procedures for reporting harassment; she also testified that, when she did learn of the procedures, she availed herself of these options and made a complaint to the Sheriff's equal employment opportunity officer. She stated that, after her reports of the conduct, she was further harassed by MEG staff members, including fellow employees.

Ms. Huff also sought a transfer to another unit and, although the Sheriff's chief of police approved her request, Mr. Douvris apparently blocked it. She was assigned to desk duty, and, in August 1997, her MEG supervisors removed her from that office; she returned to an office of the Sheriff's Department. She learned that the Sheriff had no alternate assignment for her, at which point her employment with the Sheriff ended.

Despite being subject to a distinct command structure within MEG, all Sheriff's

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Department personnel assigned there apparently continued to be subject to the Sheriff's chain of command and personnel rules; notably, the Sheriff was obligated by contract3 to determine "work-place rules of conduct" applicable to his employees detailed to MEG and, "if necessary, [to] institute disciplinary actions for [his] employees." Plaintiff's Ex.8 at 2. Mr. Guerra and Mr. Douvris ultimately were disciplined in Sheriff's Department disciplinary proceedings for their use of the racial slurs set forth in Ms. Huff's 1997 report. Mr. Douvris was demoted in rank from commander to sergeant. Mr. Guerra was removed from MEG and placed on patrol for the Sheriff's Department.4

B. District Court Proceedings

1. Pretrial Proceedings

Ms. Huff brought this action in the district court for the Northern District of Illinois. Her complaint set forth a variety of claims, including Title VII disparate treatment and hostile work environment harassment claims against her employer, the Sheriff. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. It also set forth claims under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981 and 1983 against the Sheriff in his official capacity and against Mr. Guerra and Mr. Douvris in their personal capacities.5

The parties engaged in lengthy discovery and, in 2001, all remaining defendants moved for summary judgment. The district court granted the motions in part and denied them in part. First, the court granted summary judgment to all defendants on the § 1981 claims, based on its conclusion that Ms. Huff, as an at-will employee, could not state a claim under § 1981. The district court also entered judgment for Mr. Guerra on one of the § 1983 claims after concluding that the record did not support the allegation that he had created a hostile work environment. In this ruling, the district court relied on the absence of evidence that the slurs admittedly used by Mr. Guerra ever had been used in a language understandable to Ms. Huff and in her presence.6 However, the disparate treatment claims, alleging that Mr. Guerra denied her the opportunity to act as group supervisor, denied flex-time, paged her excessively,

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denied leads on cases, evaluated her unfairly and restricted her break-time reading materials, were allowed to stand.

As to Mr. Douvris, the court granted summary judgment on Ms. Huff's § 1983 disparate treatment claim that alleged that he had assigned Ms. Huff an inferior vehicle as time-barred. It denied summary judgment on her claim that he wrongfully had denied Ms. Huff's requested transfer and that he had ordered her not to socialize with J.D. Lewis, the unit's other African-American staff member. The court also denied summary judgment on Ms. Huff's § 1983 hostile work environment claim against Mr. Douvris. Finally, the district court held that Ms. Huff had created a genuine factual issue as to the Sheriff's liability under Title VII for any harassment Ms. Huff had suffered at MEG.

2. The Jury Instructions

The parties proceeded to trial on the remaining § 1983 claims against the individual defendants, including the hostile work environment claim against Mr. Douvris and the Title VII hostile work environment claim against the Sheriff. The jury instruction conference was protracted and is difficult to follow on the record before us. The Title VII instruction that is the subject of this appeal was a particular source of conflict between the parties. The parties submitted multiple rounds of proposed Title VII instructions, some of which appear only by transcript reference in the record on appeal. For present purposes, it will suffice to note that Ms. Huff consistently maintained an objection to the Sheriff's proposed Title VII harassment jury instruction. Specifically, Ms. Huff insisted that, before the Ellerth/Faragher affirmative defense could be presented to the jury, the jury first had to be asked whether Ms. Huff had proved that the harassment she suffered culminated in a tangible employment action. See Burlington Indus., Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742, 765, 118 S.Ct. 2257, 141 L.Ed.2d 633 (1998); Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775, 807-08, 118 S.Ct. 2275, 141 L.Ed.2d 662 (1998). Ms. Huff contended that, if she had proved a tangible employment action, the Ellerth/Faragher defense was not available to the Sheriff and that a proper instruction would so indicate.

At the Sheriff's urging, the district court rejected Ms. Huff's repeated contention that the absence of a tangible employment action was a necessary precursor to the jury's consideration of the Sheriff's affirmative defense. See R.388-13 at 2324. The court reasoned that hostile work environment claims essentially state that, because of the harassment, employment conditions became so unbearable that they were equivalent to a tangible action. The question of whether the work environment resulted in a tangible action, it determined, unnecessarily muddled the burdens in a hostile work environment claim with claims that allege an independently actionable adverse employment action. Instead, the court concluded that the availability of an instruction on Ellerth/Faragher turned only on the supervisory level of the harasser, and whether, because that person was so high within the employer's structure, the victim effectively would have had no recourse. The court concluded--indeed, made a determination of law--that Mr. Douvris and Mr. Guerra were not such high-level employees, and, therefore, the affirmative defense was available to the Sheriff.7

Id. at 2324. Ms. Huff's counsel

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again objected for the record and, to preserve her objection, filed a...

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