Corporations, Sexual Harassment, and the IGVA

February 25, 2015

In 2003, the Illinois General Assembly passed the “Gender Violence Act” (“IGVA”). The act stated that any person subjected to gender-related violence as defined by the act could bring a civil action for damages against a “person or persons.” While the Act appears to be relatively straightforward on its face, recent Supreme Court cases such as Citizens United and the courts’ current views on corporate personhood, have put the application of the IGVA in regards to corporations into question.

For example, in Fuesting v. Uline, Inc.[1], the district court for the Northern District of Illinois addressed the issue of corporate personhood as it relates to the IGVA.  The case involved multiple plaintiffs who alleged that they were sexually harassed by two supervisors for several years. The plaintiffs alerted Human Resources and their superiors of the behavior but found them to be unresponsive to the situation. Eventually, Uline terminated the plaintiffs’ employment, allegedly for complaining about the harassment. As a result, the plaintiffs brought a number of counts of violation both the federal Title VII (which prohibits discrimination for race, sex, religion, and so on), the IGVA, and other state law claims. The company, Uline, quickly moved to dismiss the IGVA counts. Uline argued that the IGVA only held “persons” responsible for committing, encouraging, or assisting the act of gender-related violence. Since Uline was a corporation—not a person—it argued that the IGVA simply could not apply to it.

The court held that the plain and ordinary meaning of the words could not hold the corporation as a person. In other words, the district court found that a corporation could not act “personally.” The district court found it compelling that when the Illinois legislature has expanded personhood to include other legal entities, it had done so with an explicit reference or definition of those entities. The district court ultimately dismissed the IGVA counts, but the rest of the claims are still proceeding.

Prior to this ruling, the district court rulings have been conflicting on whether the IGVA applies to corporations. In both Cruz v. Primary Staffing[2] and Smith v. Rosebud[3], the district courts held that corporations could be sued under the IGVA. However, the district court in Fuesting stated that bothSmith and Cruz failed to provide an in-depth analysis of the statutes according to the Illinois Supreme Court’s guidelines. As a result, the Northern District of Illinois remained conflicted on the application of the IGVA to corporations, while the Illinois Supreme Court has yet to weigh in.

Despite the continued uncertainty, courts continue to find other ways to hold corporations liable under the IGVA. The Southern District Court has used a vicarious liability theory to hold corporate parties liable under the IGVA.  While a corporation may not be liable directly to plaintiffs under the IGVA, they may be liable through their employee’s actions. Specifically, in Doe ex rel. Smith v. Sobeck[4], the Southern District of Illinois addressed the same IGVA issues. The district court held that the defendant corporation could not be held directly liable under the IGVA for its actions. However, the district court also concluded that the corporation could be vicariously liable for their employee’s actions that violate the IGVA. Ultimately, the district court ended up dismissing the case for other reasons, leaving the issue unsettled.  With no immediate resolution of this issue in sight, corporations should be careful to avoid liability and take all steps possible to avoid gender-related violence and harassment in the work place.


[1] Fuesting v. Uline, Inc., No. 13 C 7082, 2014 WL 1243939 (N.D. Ill. Mar. 21, 2014).

[2] Cruz v. Primary Staffing, Inc., No. 10 C 5653, 2011 WL 1042629 (N.D. Ill. Mar. 22, 2011).

[3] Smith v. Rosebud Farmstand, 909 F. Supp. 2d 1001 (N.D. Ill. 2012).

[4] Doe ex rel. Smith v. Sobeck, 941 F. Supp. 2d 1018, 1025 (S.D. Ill. 2013).