Seventh Circuit appellate judges affirmed summary judgment for U.S. Steel in an employee’s emotional distress claim, concluding that an employer can’t be held responsible for alleged misconduct that only furthers an employee’s interests on common law grounds. 

Circuit judges Ann Claire Williams and David F. Hamilton and district judge Edmond Chang of the Northern District of Illinois decided the case on Aug. 28, with Chang delivering the opinion. 

The Seventh Circuit affirmed district judge Phil Gilbert’s summary judgment award for defendant U.S. Steel on the grounds that plaintiff Mary R. Richards’ claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress is preempted by the Illinois Human Rights Act. 

“Although our analysis of the preemption issue differs from the district court’s take on it, we agree that the emotional-distress claim fails as a matter of law.

“U.S. Steel can be held responsible for only a subset of the factual allegations that Richard relies on, and on that set of facts, US Steel did not engage in “extreme and outrageous” behavior under Illinois common law,” Chang wrote. 

The opinion explains that Richards was hired by National Steel Corporation in 1995. She continued working for the company after it was sold to U.S. Steel in 2003. 

In either 2009 or early 2010, Richards did a four-month rotation as a “learner electrician” in a department supervised by Daniel Harris. 

During that rotation, Richards told Harris that she wanted to be the best electrician she could be. In response, Harris allegedly told Richards that she would never be able to meet his standards.

Richards then moved on to the Basic Oxygen Furnace Department where she worked from April 2010 to January 2011. 

While there, Jesse Byrd was one of her supervisors. Richards claims she had several negative experiences, most of which involved Byrd. 

In one encounter, Richards alleges she was the only learner electrician to be asked questions about what she had learned. She also claims she lost a work glove. When she asked for a new pair, Byrd made a comment about incompetent people. 

In June 2010, Richards claims she was walking from a patio back to the work area when Byrd approached her, jerked her jacket open and said, “I like that,” while staring at her. 

During Richards’ nine months in the Furnace Department, she had several more run-ins with Byrd. She eventually left the department on Jan. 9, 2011, and began working for the Maintenance Services Department. 

After she left, Byrd allegedly followed her and attempted to speak with her twice. She claims she “just ran away from him.”

On Jan. 28, 2011, Richards filed a discrimination complaint with U.S. Steel about some of Byrd’s conduct. 

Human resources personnel Lydia Kachigan and Nic Krasucki met with her and her union representatives to discuss the complaint. Kachigan allegedly speculated that Byrd had opened Richard’s jacket to look at an inside pocket, and told Richards that she needed to adjust to Byrd’s rough management style. 

Richards did not feel like her concerns had been adequately addressed, so on Feb. 12, 2011, she called a U.S. Steel employee hotline to report Byrd’s inappropriate comments and conduct. 

A few days later, she met with human resources personnel Mark Tade and David Coombes. Tade told Richards she was too emotional after she began crying while talking about the jacket incident. He suggested she see a psychiatrist. 

Several months later, Richards failed to show up or call off for an overtime shift she was scheduled to work and was suspended pending a hearing. The suspension was converted to a discharge, which was overturned following arbitration. 

She was evaluated by a psychologist in 2013 who diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder and dysthymic disorder. 

Richards filed a three-count complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois in November 2012, alleging retaliation, sexual harassment and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

U.S. Steel filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the retaliation and sexual harassment claims were time-barred and that Richards failed to state a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress. 

The time-barred claims were dismissed, but with the federal law claims dismissed, the court declined to exercise jurisdiction over the emotional distress allegation.

Richards refiled her claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress in the Madison County Circuit Court on May 1, 2015. 

U.S. Steel removed the case, alleging diversity of jurisdiction. It then sought summary judgment.

The U.S. District Court granted dismissal on the ground that it is preempted by the Illinois Human Rights Act because it is “’inextricably linked’ to her claims of retaliation and sexual harassment.”

Richards appealed to the Seventh Circuit. 

“In this case, when we ask whether Richards can state a valid common-law claim without needing to rely on rights or duties sourced to the Human Rights Act, our answer is no,” Chang wrote. “Disarmed of the Human Rights Act, Richards faces insurmountable factual and legal hurdles.”

He explains that the facts on which Richards can rely in her emotional distress assertion is restricted only to those that the Illinois common law would attribute to U.S. Steel. 

“Although the Human Rights Act imposes strict liability on an employer for a supervisor’s misconduct, not so with the common law,” Chang wrote. 

The opinion states that an employer is not liable for an employee’s acts when they are committed solely for the employee’s benefit. 

“And in the specific context of sexual assault, the sexual nature of the misconduct generally disqualifies the employee’s act as being taken in furtherance of the employer’s interest,” Chang wrote.

“This is so even where the employment provided the opportunity,” he added. 

Neither of the sexual misconduct incidents involving Byrd had “any apparent relation to Byrd’s job duties as a supervisor or could be said to further U.S. Steel’s interests.”

The Seventh Circuit further held that the emotional distress claim does not qualify as “extreme and outrageous.”

Therefore, the appellate court affirmed the district court’s summary judgment decision. 

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