Trial date set in sexual harassment case against Madison County

Steve Gonzalez Sep. 23, 2008, 2:30pm

A trial in Robin Beem's sexual harassment suit against Madison County is "unavoidable," according to an order by U.S. District Judge G. Patrick Murphy.

Murphy recently denied Beem's motion for summary judgment and partially granted the county's summary judgment motion, finding Beem can only seek damages for alleged harassment after October 2005.

After Murphy entered his order last month, both sides agreed to have the trial held before a magistrate instead of a district judge.

The case was then passed to Magistrate Donald Wilkerson, who immediately set the trial for Jan. 20, 2009.

Beem filed the sexual harassment and discrimination complaint against the county in U.S. District Court on Sept. 18, 2007, alleging she was exposed to a hostile work environment that included being exposed to pornography.

Beem's suit stems from alleged actions by former Madison County Administrator Jim Monday, who retired in March 2006, after 20 years on the job.

She is currently employed as the county board secretary.

Beem had filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing summary judgment should be granted in her favor because through depositions and written discovery Madison County has admitted all elements of a Title VII sexual harassment claim.

If Murphy would have granted her motion, a separate trial to determine damages would have taken place.

The county also filed a motion for summary judgment on two grounds.

The county contended that Beem failed to take advantage of the Madison County Sexual Harassment Policy. The county also argued the conduct alleged did not rise to the level of actionable sexual harassment.

Murphy's order

Murphy entered a five-page order on Aug. 18.

"Because genuine issues of material fact exist on all but one issue, Plaintiff's motion is denied, and Defendant's motion is granted in part and denied in part," Murphy began his order.

According to Murphy's order, to establish a claim for hostile work environment sexual harassment, Beem must show that she was subjected to unwelcome harassment, the harassment was based on her sex, the harassment was severe and pervasive enough so as to alter the conditions of her environment and create a hostile or abusive work environment and that there is a basis for employer liability.

Citing the 2002 Seventh Circuit opinion Patt v. Family Health Sys., Inc., Murphy said when assessing Beem's claim he must "look to all the surrounding circumstances, including the frequency of the harassing conduct, its severity, whether it was physically threatening or humiliating or a mere offensive utterance, and whether the conduct unreasonably interfered with the employee's work performance."

Murphy also pointed out that hostile and ignorant behavior not based on sex does not give rise to a Title VII claim.

"Trial is unavoidable in this matter," Murphy wrote.

Murphy added, "Monday was a habitual consumer of pornography while supposedly about the county's business and while using a county computer. But the question is whether Plaintiff was even a target of Monday's behavior and, therefore, whether this conduct could be considered sexual harassment.

"Plaintiff testified that she was exposed to both pornographic pictures and videos by virtue of sitting 20-30 feet from Monday's computer screen, which she was able to see (and hear) through the door to his office.

"It could well be the case that Monday engaged in such activity to simply gratify himself, but that is an inference for the jury to draw. For instance, on one occasion while enjoying a performance on screen he attempted to hide his state of arousal from Plaintiff when she unexpectedly entered his office. This would seem to indicate that Plaintiff's status as a female was beside the point. So, the jury must determine whether Plaintiff was allegedly harassed because of her sex.

"Was Plaintiff exposed to pornography because she is a woman or because she was Monday's subordinate? There is no evidence in the record that men were exposed to the images on Monday's computer, only the women who worked for him or who filled-in for the women working for him. But, there were seldom men around to test this proposition.

"The jury also must decide whether Defendant exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct any harassing conduct in the workplace after October 2005.

"The Court does find as a matter of law, however, that before October 2005, Plaintiff unreasonably failed to take advantage of opportunities provided by Defendant to prevent or correct any such harassment.

"Therefore, any damages will be limited accordingly."

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