A divided Illinois appellate panel has ruled a corporation can, under limited circumstances, be liable as a "person" under the Illinois Gender Violence Act, should one of its employees violate that law.
The May 17 decision was written by Justice Vicki Wright, with concurrence from Justice Mary K. O’Brien, of Illinois Third District Appellate Court in Ottawa. Justice Daniel Schmidt dissented, saying the "word 'person' refers only to human beings."
The ruling answered a question by Cynthia Gasic, who sued Jose Canales Jr. and his employer, Marquette Management, in 2017 in Will County Circuit Court.
Gasic lived in an apartment complex managed by Marquette. She alleged Canales, who was a maintenance employee with Marquette, entered her apartment and “engaged in unwanted and inappropriate sexual contact.”
Illinois Third District Appellate Justice Vicki Wright Illinoiscourts.gov
Gasic sued Marquette in 2017 under the 2016 Gender Violence Act, which allows for civil actions against a “person or persons” perpetrating gender-related violence. The Act defines “perpetrating” as the personal commission of the violence or “personally encouraging or assisting” the violence.
In October 2017, Circuit Judge John C. Anderson granted Marquette’s motion to dismiss one of the counts, finding an artificial entity, such as Marquette, is not a “person” who can “personally” commit or assist an act of gender-related violence, as outlined by the Act. Gasic then filed for an interlocutory appeal, asking the appellate court to reject Anderson’s interpretation.
Justice Wright rejected the lower court's understanding of personhood, and determined a corporation, depending on "circumstances" — can act “personally” under the Act.
"Over time, our nation’s courts came to recognize the high degree of parity that corporations share with natural persons. The rapidly expanding concept of corporate personhood in existing case law has grown to blur the line between natural persons and corporations in the legal context,” Wright observed.
As examples, Wright noted corporations are considered "persons" when it comes to constitutional safeguards, such as the rights to due process and trial by jury.
Although Wright found a corporation would be a "person" under certain circumstances in connection with the Act, she did not list those circumstances.
Wright acknowledged she understands doubt can exist whether a legal entity can "personally" commit assault or battery. However, Wright added the Act also defines perpetrating as "personally encouraging or assisting," which, she noted, "serves to muddy the waters and leaves this court unable to answer this certified question with a simple 'no.'"
In Justice Schmidt's dissent, he said the Act's language and context indicate the word "person" does not include "artificial entities."
According to Schmidt, the word, as used in the Act, refers to a "person who has been subjected to gender-related violence" and "persons perpetrating that gender-related violence."
In Schmidt's eyes, the Act recognizes a person can suffer and inflict violence, not a corporation.
"Artificial entities are creatures of law, not of nature. They must exist within the confines of their predetermined purposes and powers. Artificial entities lack the capacity to intend and the literal ability to 'personally' perpetrate violence, gender-related or otherwise," Schmidt reasoned.
Gasic has been represented by Deutschman & Associates, of Chicago.
Marquette has been defended by the Chicago firm of Walker Wilcox Matousek.