Monday, December 8, 2014

Court Reaffirms Limited Nature of Retaliatory Discharge Tort

Under Illinois law at-will employees may be discharged at any time and for any reason. Kelsay v. Motorola Inc., 74 Ill 2nd 172 (1978), recognized the tort of retaliatory discharge as a narrow exception to this general rule. The tort of retaliatory discharge protects employees from adverse employment action in two areas: (1) when pursuing workers compensation benefits and (2) when reporting illegal conduct, otherwise known as whistle blowing.

Michael v. Precision Alliance Group, LLC decided by the Illinois Supreme Court December 4, 2014, (2014 IL 117376), involved three employees who were terminated after reporting their employer to the state for shipping underweight product. The trial court found the plaintiffs proved a “causal connection” between their whistle blowing and their termination, but believed the employer’s explanation that the three employees were terminated for legitimate reasons: one was terminated for horse play and two others were terminated due to a reduction in force necessitated by a slowdown in business. The trial court ruled in favor of the employer concluding the plaintiffs failed to meet their burden of proof.

The Appellate Court reversed. The Appellate Court held that finding a “causal connection” was sufficient proof of retaliation and making the plaintiffs disprove the employer’s articulated reasons for the discharge placed an improper burden on the plaintiffs.

The Illinois Supreme Court reversed the Appellate Court and reinstated the trial court judgment for the employer. The Court rejected the idea that proof of a “causal connection” is sufficient to defeat an employer’s believable non-retaliatory explanation for the termination.

Illinois law is clear, retaliatory discharge claims are a narrow exception to the general rule that employees are at-will. Thus, if an employer comes forward with a valid non-pretextual reason for an employee’s discharge and the trier of fact believes it, there can be no causation in a retaliatory discharge claim. Accordingly since the trier of fact here found defendant’s reasons for discharging plaintiffs to be valid and non-pretextual, plaintiffs did not prove the element of causation and the circuit court properly entered judgment in favor of the defendant.

This case illustrates the importance of properly documenting legitimate reasons for any adverse employment action taken against an employee who is eligible for workers compensation benefits or who has engaged in whistle blowing activity. Employers may want to consult with their attorney when faced with the need to take employment action against employees who have engaged in these protective activities.