October 22, 2020

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Negligent Hiring and Retention Opens Door to Sexual Harassment as Assault

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Sexual Harassment

If it were simple to avoid hiring a problematic worker, employers simply would not do it. Unfortunately, the warning signs of a sexual harasser may not be immediately evident; an individual’s comportment in an interview may not translate to their comportment in their everyday work. Through sexual harassment training, employers in Illinois can better educate their workforce and avoid sexual harassment in the workplace with online Illinois sexual harassment training.

Jane Doe and her parents brought suit against the First Congregational Church of Dundee (FCCD). Doe claimed that FCCD, through its head pastor Aaron James, negligently hired, supervised, and retained its director of youth ministries, Chad Coe. Doe alleged that because of FCCD’s negligence, Coe had the access and opportunity he required to sexually assault her. Coe was employed as director of youth ministries by FCCD. Because of his position of authority, he was an “agent” of FCCD, making FCCD liable for his actions.

The Kane County circuit court initially struck a substantial amount of the plaintiff’s complaint. On appeal, Doe successfully argued for reinstatement of virtually all counts.

Doe alleged that FCCD had a stringent sexual harassment policy that prohibited the sexual harassment and required Father James to report any indications of Coe’s sexual misconduct; Doe argued that the court could enforce this policy. The court disagreed, holding instead that an internal set of guidelines does not extend or create a duty of care where law does not have one.

Regardless of any internal policy, all employers have a duty to hire individuals who can competently perform the job without causing reasonably foreseeable harm to individuals with whom they come into contact. As director of youth ministries, it was reasonably foreseeable that Coe would have ready access to vulnerable individuals.

During his tenure as director of youth ministries, Coe encouraged underage girls to sit on his lap and touched their buttocks, showed the youth group pornographic videos, and regularly isolated young girls. In 2013, Coe had sex with Jane Doe when she was 15 and he was 31. Doe alleged that throughout his time with the youth group, other employees and volunteers discussed Coe’s inappropriate behavior. On at least one occasion, a volunteer reported inappropriate interactions between Coe and Doe.

According to Doe, the FCCD could have, and should have, been aware of Coe’s use of internet child pornography before ever hiring him. She claimed a Google search of his social media username would have turned up his pornographic activity as well. The appellate court held that this was a factual issue not suitable for a court to decide without evidence.

After Coe was hired, FCCD was responsible for supervising his interactions with the youth group. Doe alleged that FCCD should have provided the appropriate training to James, Coe’s supervisor; either the training was inadequate and FCCD was liable, or the training was appropriate and James was liable.

The most effective way to prevent sexual harassment litigation is to prevent sexual harassment from occurring. To do that, employers should provide Illinois sexual harassment training, as required by law. Employers should also create and follow hiring guidelines that work to exclude potential sexual predators from the hiring pool. Employers who provide exceptional sexual harassment training and education do not create liability for themselves, evident from this case.

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