Illinois Supreme Court Sides With Employers In Defeating Alleged ‘Whistleblower’ Claim
In December 2014, the Illinois Supreme Court issued a decision that narrows the burden on employers who are trying to defend against a claim of retaliatory discharge tort claims. The holding in Michael v. Precision Alliance Group, LLC, 2014 IL 117376 was that an employer is not required to provide a reason for an at-will employee’s discharge when facing a retaliatory discharge claim, but if an employer does provide a reason, and the judge or jury believes that reason, the employee’s case is over because the causation element of a retaliatory discharge claim cannot be met.
The employees in Michael alleged that they were whistleblowers and that the company discharged them in retaliation for reporting the company to the State of Illinois for allegedly shipping underweight bags of agricultural products, in violation of Illinois law. The company responded to the allegations by stating that the plaintiffs were actually discharged for either engaging in horseplay with a forklift or as a result of a reduction in force. The circuit court determined that the company’s reasons were believable and therefore dismissed the claims. On appeal, the appellate court reversed and remanded, applying the familiar burden-shifting framework which is common in federal discrimination cases. On appeal to the Supreme Court, the appellate court’s decision was overturned, based on a finding that once the company provided its reasons for the discharge, and those reasons were believed by the trier of fact, that ended the inquiry.
There are several take-aways for employers: 1) always document the reason for an employee’s termination and 2) consider whether the reason would be believable by a trier of fact in light of other circumstances occurring around the same time as the termination decision.
To discuss how these issues apply to your company contact:
Laura A. Balson, (312)696-1351, firstname.lastname@example.org
or Margaret A. Gisch, (312)696-2039, email@example.com.