Howard v. Cook County Sheriff's Office, No. 20-1723 (7th Cir. 2021)Annotate this Case
Women who work at the Cook County Jail or the adjoining courthouse filed a class-action suit against their employers for failing to prevent male inmates from sexually harassing them. The district court certified a class comprising all non‐supervisory female employees who work with male inmates at the jail or courthouse, of whom there are about 2,000.
On interlocutory appeal, the Seventh Circuit held that the district court abused its discretion in certifying the class under Rule 23. The court’s primary error was using the peripheral and overbroad concept of “ambient harassment” (i.e., indirect or secondhand harassment) to certify a class of employees who have endured a wide range of direct and indirect harassment. Even without this error, the class cannot stand because it comprises class members with materially different working environments whose claims require separate, individualized analyses. Hostile work environment claims are fact-intensive. They turn on the frequency, severity, character, and effect of the harassment. Here, these are “worker‐specific” inquiries because they depend on a class member’s unique experience—which correlates to where she works. Some class members will have had comparable experiences but the plaintiffs have not proven that for the entire class.