Illinois Supreme Court Reaffirms Employment-At-Will Has Only Narrow Exceptions

Dec 15, 2014

For more than three decades, Illinois courts have allowed a narrow exception to the employment-at-will doctrine by recognizing the tort of retaliatory discharge. To establish such a claim, the employee must prove (1) the employer discharged employee; (2) the discharge was in retaliation for the employee’s activities (causation); and (3) the discharge violates a clear mandate of public policy. Although there is no precise definition of what amounts to a clearly mandated public policy, Illinois courts have allowed retaliatory discharge claims in two settings: where an employee is fired for exercising rights under the Workers’ Compensation Act; or where an employee is discharged in retaliation for “blowing the whistle” on illegal or improper conduct.

On December 4, 2014, the Illinois Supreme Court decided Michael v. Precision Alliance Group, LLC, 2014 IL 117376, which addresses the manner and method of proving retaliatory discharge claims in Illinois. First, a little background. A 1991 Illinois Appellate Court decision applied the familiar three-part burden shifting paradigm established for federal employment discrimination cases to Illinois retaliatory discharge claims. In a 1998 decision, however, the Illinois Supreme Court rejected this approach for retaliatory discharge tort claims. In that case, the court instructed that when an employer proffers a valid reason for the employee’s discharge, and the trier of fact believes it, the causation element required for proving retaliatory discharge is not met, and thus the claim fails.

In Precision Alliance Group, the trial court determined that Precision had presented valid, nonretaliatory, and nonpretextual reasons for discharging three employees, contrary to their claims that they were fired in retaliation for blowing the whistle on the employer’s allegedly illegal conduct. Yet the Illinois appellate court held that the employees had proved causation based upon the circuit court’s finding of a “causal nexus” as part of the prima facie case under the burden-shifting paradigm used in federal employment discrimination cases – an approach that the Illinois Supreme Court had since rejected. Accordingly, the appellate court’s reliance on the lower court’s finding of a “causal nexus” was misplaced, said the Supreme Court.

Thus, Precision Alliance Group confirms that an employer is not required to come forward with a valid reason for an employee’s discharge when faced with a retaliatory discharge claim. The employee always bears the burden to prove he was discharged in retaliation for protected conduct. However, when the employer chooses to come forward with such a valid explanation, and the trier of fact (the judge or jury) believes that explanation, then the employer wins because the causation element of retaliatory discharge is not met. The new Illinois Supreme Court decision illustrates that Illinois courts construe the tort of retaliatory discharge narrowly. It remains the general rule in Illinois is that a noncontractual or at-will employee may be discharged at any time and for any (or no) reason. That doesn’t mean retaliatory discharge claims are a dead letter. But as long as the employer can provide a legitimate, nonretaliatory reason for terminating an employee (even one who has engaged in “whistleblowing” or other protected activity), then it will be well-positioned to respond to and defeat such a claim.

SLB-black-and-whiteThis article was written by Steven L. Benneman who is a partner at Fox, Swibel, Levin & Carroll, LLP, and an editor of the Illinois Employment Law Letter. He can be reached at sbrenneman@foxswibel.com.