Thursday, October 29, 2020

Illinois Supreme Court Issues Narrow Ruling on “Other Offices”

The Illinois Supreme Court recently issued a narrow opinion weighing in on the definition of home offices. In Tabirta v. Cummings, Plaintiff, a truck driver, was driving through the State of Ohio when another truck driver collided with the plaintiff. Plaintiff suffered serve injuries causing him to lose both of his legs. The defendant driver is an employee of the Gilster-Mary Lee Corporation (GML), which is a food manufacturing company located incorporated in Missouri but is headquartered in Chester, Illinois located in Randolph County.

Plaintiff filed suit in Cook County, Illinois. GML challenged the suit stating that venue was improper, which means Cook County was not the proper place to file the suit because that is not where the action took place nor did GML have any contacts with Cook County related to the lawsuit.

Plaintiff argued that he could file and litigate the suit in Cook County because GML maintained an “other office” in the county. Plaintiff discovered that GML employed a part-time worker, James Bolton, who assisted GML with customer service for three grocery store chains in Illinois. Bolton conducted most of his job functions over the phone at his home in Cook County. He also maintained a telephone extension that relayed customer service calls to his residence. There was no evidence that GML paid for Bolton’s property. Further, the vice president of sales and research and development stated in an affidavit that Bolton’s hiring was based purely on his geographic location in Northern Illinois and his years of experience in the food industry (Bolton retired in the food industry in 2010 and has some-50 years of experience).

Both the Illinois Circuit Court and Appellate Court found the Bolton’s office constituted an “other office” to allow the suit to continue. Defendant appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court.

Writing the opinion of the Court, Justice Anne E. Burke found that Bolton’s work situation did not constitute an “other office.” GML hired Bolton because of his experience and geographic location—not because he was a resident of Cook County. Further, the plaintiff’s contention that GML’s 1-800 number relayed to Bolton’s personal phone was found to be irrelevant. All customer service calls intended for Bolton were routed through GML’s call center and transferred to Bolton’s cell phone. Theoretically, Bolton could conduct business on behalf of GML anywhere—not just his residence in Cook County. Thus, Bolton’s residence in Cook County was not considered an “other office” for litigation purposes.

In general, Tabirta’s legal significance is not the final authority on other offices or working from home. The case is in particular a very fact-intensive case. Nonetheless, Illinois employers should take note of Tabirta as remote work (especially employing workers in different counties and states) becomes more prevalent.