The $7.5 million case of a Chicago divorce attorney who alleges a Playboy executive subjected her to an “extreme and outrageous sexual pursuit” is an early test of a “cutting edge” civil rights law designed to protect victims of “gender-related violence.”
Corri D. Fetman wrote the “Lawyer of Love” legal advice column for Playboy.com under the supervision of general manager of digital media Thomas Hagopian. In a complaint filed last week, she alleges he fired her in July 2008 after engaging in “a continuing pattern of harassment” that included raunchy e-mails, unsolicited gifts of lingerie and multiple unwelcome gropings.
Hagopian “use[d] his position and authority to attempt to force Fetman into a sexual and romantic relationship,” the suit says.
For part of her case, Fetman has invoked a recently-enacted Illinois law -- 740 ILCS 8211 –- which provides that “Any person who has been subjected to gender-related violence ... may bring a civil action for damages, injunctive relief, or other appropriate relief against a person or persons perpetrating that gender-related violence.”
The law was passed in response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down the federal Violence Against Women Act and President Barack Obama helped steer it through the Illinois Legislature when he was a state senator.
Fetman is seeking $4.5 million in gender-violence damages, but no Illinois case has held that the law applies to the employer of a perpetrator. A similar California statute says more specifically that a victim of gender violence may sue “any responsible party.”
But Fetman's attorney, Timothy J. Ashe (Corbett & Ashe, Chicago), insists that the Illinois law has "a broad scope of recovery. The protection for victims is wide.”
The case has inspired plenty of unsympathetic comment, largely because the well-endowed Fetman posed nude for Playboy's February 2008 issue. She had also come to the magazine's attention by using a photo of her cleavage in an advertising campaign for her practice.
“She has systematically sexualized herself in the pursuit of her business,” an Overlawyered.com reader commented. “And now she is shocked that an executive at Playboy is seeing her just as a sex object.”
But Ashe doubts Playboy can make a similar argument as part of its defense. “It's kind of like saying, 'If you are wearing a short skirt, you are inviting rape,''” he observes.
According to the complaint, Hagopian -– who called himself “the Hef of online” -- offered Fetman the “Lawyer in Love” column in October 2007. At a dinner meeting just a week later, he allegedly presented her with unsolicited gifts including lingerie and, on the way back to his hotel in Fetman's car, committed his first alleged act of gender violence.
Hagopian “intentionally and without permission grabbed Fetman's breast and attempted to kiss Fetman,” she alleges.
The suit describes no fewer than six such groping incidents between October 2007 and March 2008, alleging that these “aggressive and inappropriate physical contacts ... satisfy the elements of battery,” as required by the gender-violence statute. Hagopian no longer works for Playboy.
Ashe tells On Point he will argue that Playboy is liable even if the company did not know about Hagopian's alleged misconduct before he fired Fetman. “It's basic agency principle law,” he says. "There's no requirement for knowledge or ratification."
He declined to explain why he did not plead a sexual harassment claim under either the Illinois Human Rights Act or Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act. The IHRA holds an employer strictly liable for a supervisor's harassment of an employee and provides remedies similar to those of the gender-violence law.
Court records show the case was dismissed Feb. 25, 2010 after the parties reached a settlement.
By Matthew Heller