(CN) – The 7th Circuit refused to disturb a jury’s $65,000 award to an Illinois nursing home worker who claimed she was fired for reporting sexual harassment by some of the residents.
Danielle L. Pickett, a former dietary aide and housekeeper for the Sheridan Center, said she complained that residents had asked for sexual favors and inappropriately touched her while she was cleaning their rooms.
In June 2006, one resident allegedly cornered her and groped her. She said she declined to file a police report after she was assured that the offending resident would be forced to leave.
After a meeting with Paul Ross Zeller, the center’s administrator, Pickett was reassigned from cleaning residents’ rooms to cleaning common areas.
Unsatisfied with the center’s response to the sexual harassment — particularly its delay in ousting the resident who groped her — Pickett again met with Zeller, telling him, “You’re treating this like a store where the customer is always right. This is not right.”
He replied, “Maybe you should go and clean some stores,” according to Pickett, although Zeller denied the remark. Pickett said she left the meeting in tears, afraid her job was in jeopardy.
She then exited the building while still on the clock.
When Pickett called the next day to clarify her job status, she was told that “it was best she part ways with the company.”
She filed a discrimination complaint, and the nursing home offered to let her return to work. She turned it down, later explaining that the offer did not include back pay, and that she doubted Sheridan Center’s commitment to protecting its staff from being exposed to future harassment.
A jury sided with Pickett in her retaliation lawsuit, and awarded her $15,000 in compensatory damages and $50,000 in punitive damages.
The center sought a new trial or a reduction in the damages award, claiming the evidence did not back up Pickett’s claim. Sheridan Center also argued that it was not liable for retaliation, because third-party residents had committed the harassment, not staff members.
A federal judge in Illinois denied the motions and awarded Pickett back pay on top of damages.
The 7th Circuit agreed that the center had a duty to prevent a hostile work environment, even if the harassment was committed by third parties.
“The jury found Pickett’s proof persuasive and the record is not so sparse that we must second-guess its decision here,” Judge Joel M. Flaum wrote.
Pickett no longer works at the Sheridan Center.