Employment Law Alert

Illinois Supreme Court Confirms Retaliatory Discharge Applies Only to At-Will Employees

Mar 8, 2021

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More than 40 years ago, the Illinois Supreme Court first recognized the tort of retaliatory discharge as an exception to the general rule that an “at-will” employee is terminable at any time and for any or no cause. Now, the court for the first time has confirmed such claims don’t cover the nonrenewal of a fixed-term contract.

Naper-thrill

Mary Rehfield was employed by the Diocese of Joliet as principal of St. Raphael Catholic School in Naperville. The school is operated by St. Raphael Parish, an agent of the diocese. The principal reported to Father Daniel Bachner, an ordained Roman Catholic priest and the parish’s pastor.

Upon her hire in 2012 and each year thereafter, Rehfield and the diocese entered into one-year employment contracts. She consistently received good performance reviews. In the 2016-17 school year, she was nominated as “outstanding principal of the year.”

In January 2016, a teacher at the school was contacted by a student’s mother, who complained her child was being bullied. Although the teacher addressed the issue and believed it was resolved, shortly thereafter the teacher received an e-mail from the same student’s father, William MacKinnon, reiterating his child must not be bullied. The teacher found the e-mail rude in tone, although not threatening. She notified Rehfield of the e-mail, who in turn informed Father Bachner.

Expelled

Ultimately, the kerfuffle led to additional e-mails from MacKinnon, which were perceived to be threatening. The notes led to police reports, publicity, and eventually a meeting with angry parents and the school administrators, including Rehfield. Throughout the process, Rehfield followed her superiors’ directions.

Yet, in June 2017, days after the parent meeting, the diocese terminated Rehfield’s employment contract for the remainder of the 2016-17 school year and notified her she wouldn’t be permitted to lead the school the following academic year even though she had already accepted a contract.

Rehfield claimed she was let go because (1) she reported the threatening conduct to the police and (2) the diocese made her a scapegoat for an embarrassing situation.

Hail Mary

Rehfield filed suit in the Circuit Court of Will County, alleging she suffered retaliatory discharge because the diocese terminated her for her protected activity in reporting the inappropriate behavior. The court eventually dismissed the claims.

  • Rehfield’s common-law retaliatory discharge claim was dismissed because such claims are available only to employees terminable at will, whereas she had a series of one-year contracts.
  • Her Illinois Whistleblower Act (IWA) and retaliatory discharge tort claims were barred by the doctrine of ecclesiastic abstention, which provides that Illinois civil courts may not interfere with certain types of decisions by a religious organization. (This article focuses on the retaliatory discharge claim; the IWA claim will be focused on in a subsequent article.)

On appeal, the Illinois Appellate Court affirmed the dismissal of Rehfield’s complaint purely on the basis of ecclesiastical abstention. The Illinois Supreme Court granted the former principal’s petition for an appeal.

Contract conundrum

The supreme court observed that to establish a common-law retaliatory discharge claim, Rehfield must show (1) she was discharged (2) in retaliation for her activities, and (3) the termination violates a clear public policy mandate. The first element requires an actual discharge of an “at-will” employee, i.e., one whose employment has a nonspecific duration that can be ended for any reason.

Before Rehfield’s case, the Illinois Appellate Court had found numerous times the retaliatory discharge tort doesn’t apply to cover “the nonrenewal of a fixed-term contract.” In a 2006 case, for example, the appellate court ruled an athletic trainer for the Chicago Cubs baseball team couldn’t pursue a retaliatory discharge claim based on the team’s failure to renew his one-year employment contract. But until now, the supreme court hadn’t weighed in on the point.

For the first time, the supreme court confirmed retaliatory discharge claims are available only to at-will employees. It found the trial court properly dismissed Rehfield’s retaliatory discharge claim because her employment wasn’t at-will. Instead, she was subject to a contract for a specified term. Rehfield v. Diocese of Joliet, 2021 IL 125656 (Feb. 4, 2021).

Holding the line

Over the years, Illinois courts have faced many attempts by fired workers to expand the retaliatory discharge tort, mostly without success. Previous cases have refused to recognize such a claim for an alleged “constructive” discharge. In other words, the employee must have experienced an actual discharge. Rehfield argued the supreme court had already expanded the tort to include contractual employees back in 1984, in Midgett v. Sackett-Chicago, Inc. But that case simply held a retaliatory discharge claim was available to union employees even though they were subject to a collective bargaining agreement (CBA). Rehfield’s case didn’t involve a CBA, and the supreme court refused to expand the contours of retaliatory discharge to cover employees who are subject to an employment contract for a specified term.

Steve Brenneman HeadshotThis article was written by Steven L. Brenneman who is the Chair of the Employment Law Group at Fox Swibel, and an editor of the Illinois Employment Law Letter. He can be reached at [email protected]. Illinois-Employment-Law-Letter-Logo
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