Supreme Court Summaries

Opinions filed June 20, 2013


 

 

 

Crittenden v. Cook County Commission on Human Rights, 2013 IL 114876

Appellate citation: 2012 IL App (1st) 112437.

 

      JUSTICE GARMAN delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion.

      Chief Justice Kilbride and Justices Freeman, Thomas, Karmeier, Burke, and Theis concurred in the judgment and opinion.

 

      A woman who was a bartender at a tavern in Riverdale complained of events which took place there in 2006, and she filed a complaint for sexual harassment under the Cook County Human Rights Ordinance. An administrative hearing was held in 2008, and the hearing officer issued a recommended order in favor of the claimant in 2009. The Cook County Commission on Human Rights entered a decision in 2010, awarding $41,670 in lost wages, $5,000 in compensatory damages, $5,000 in punitive damages, and attorney fees and costs. This result was affirmed by the circuit court of Cook County.

      The issue in this appeal is punitive damages. When the matter reached the appellate court, it upheld the Commission’s order except as to the punitive damages award, which it reversed. The appellate court found a lack of authority to enter it.

      In this decision, the Illinois Supreme Court affirmed the appellate court’s ruling that punitive damages could not be awarded in this case, even though the Commission believed it could do so. The victim and the Commission argue that the misconduct alleged was willful and wanton.

      The county ordinance in question does not expressly authorize punitive damages. Although Cook County is a home rule unit, and although there are instances in which home rule units have expressly authorized their own local units and boards to award punitive damages, that is not the case here.

      The victim and the Commission argued that interpretations by administrative agencies should be deferred to on the basis of their expertise in their particular specialized fields. They also argued that authority to award punitive damages was implicit, if not express, in the county ordinance, and cited examples of civil lawsuits seeking recovery for statutory violations where plaintiffs have been allowed to pursue recovery of punitive damages at common law. However, the supreme court noted in this decision that the Cook County Commission on Human Rights is an administrative agency, which has no common law powers. Its authority is limited to what is granted to it in the county ordinance.

      The type of recovery sought is counter to the principles that punitive damages are not favored in the law and that in civil litigation in the court system more protections are afforded than are available in administrative proceedings. The supreme court said that it would not defer to the Commission’s interpretation where, as here, it was erroneous and contrary to the supreme court’s own long-standing precedent.

      The appellate court was upheld in its reversal of the punitive damage award.