On April 16, 2018, the Illinois Appellate Court, First District, reversed the dismissal of an Illinois common law retaliatory discharge claim. Roberts v. Board of Trustees Community College, 2018 IL App (1st) 170067 (4/16/2018). The plaintiff filed a lawsuit against his former employer alleging claims for common law retaliatory discharge, violation of the Illinois Whistleblower Act, and wrongful termination. The circuit court dismissed the retaliatory discharge claim and whistleblower claim. The First District reversed the dismissal of the plaintiff's retaliatory discharge claim, but affirmed the dismissal of his claim under the Whistleblower Act. Illinois follows the employment at-will rule, which means that an employee who does not have a specified term of employment under an employment contract is subject to termination by the employer at any time for any or no reason, with or without notice. However, Illinois recognizes an exception to the general employment at-will rule when the discharge violates a clear mandate of public policy.
Illinois Appellate Court
On December 13, 2017, the Illinois Appellate Court, Second District, reversed the circuit court's dismissal of a workplace discrimination and wrongful termination lawsuit on procedural grounds. Metzler v. Katherine Shaw Bethea Hospital, 2017 IL App (2d) 170001 (12/13/2017). The plaintiff, who was employed by the defendant for 24 years, most recently as a chemistry supervisor, alleged that he was harassed by a female supervisor, given a negative performance review, suspended, and terminated because of his sex, male, in violation of the Illinois Human Rights Act (the "Act"). After his termination, he filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Illinois Department of Human Rights (the "Department") alleging unlawful sex discrimination in violation of the Act, which prohibits various types of employment discrimination.
On October 20, 2017, a federal district court judge for the Northern District of Illinois held that a non-solicitation restrictive covenant contained in an employment contract was not unenforceable for lack of adequate consideration, even though the defendants were employed for fewer than two (2) years. Stericycle, Inc. v. Simota, et al., No. 16 C 4782 (N.D.Ill. 10/20/2017). In so holding, the court rejected the Illinois Appellate Court's ruling in Fifield v. Premier Dealer Servs., 2013 IL App (1st) 120327, which held that a non-competition or non-solicitation restrictive covenant contained in an employment at-will employment agreement is unenforceable for lack of adequate consideration when the employee was employed for fewer than two (2) years. Several other Illinois Appellate Court decisions have followed Fifield and adopted the so-called "two-year rule," but the Illinois Supreme Court has not reached the issue. Accordingly, federal court judges are not bound to follow Fifield, and instead must make a predictive judgment on how the Illinois Supreme Court would decide the issue.
On September 26, 2017 (in an unpublished Rule 23 opinion), the Illinois Appellate Court, First District, ruled that a 2.5 Million Dollar punitive damages award in an Illinois workers' compensation retaliatory discharge lawsuit was unconstitutional under federal due process standards, and reduced the punitive damages award to $1,406,839.50 based on a 9:1 ratio of punitive damages to compensatory damages. Francek v. Dominick's Finer Foods, LLC, et al., 2017 IL App (1st) 162574-U. Following a jury trial in a retaliatory discharge case, the circuit court entered judgment on the jury verdict in favor of the plaintiff and against his former employer in the total amount of $2,656,315.50. The plaintiff claimed that he was discharged in retaliation for filing claims under the Illinois Workers' Compensation Act. The jury returned a verdict in the amount of $156,315.50 in compensatory damages, $2,500,000 in punitive damages, plus court costs. The compensatory damages were itemized as follows: (1) $31,315.50 for psychological treatment and counseling; (2) $75,000 for emotional and/or psychological damages; and (3) $50,000 for emotional and/or psychological damages reasonably certain to be experienced.
On August 7, 2017, the Illinois Appellate Court, First District, held that a former branch sales manager did not violate the noncompetition covenants contained in his employment contract with his former employer when he transmitted LinkedIn invitations to its employees. Bankers Life and Casualty Company v. American Senior Benefits, LLC, et al., 2017 IL App (1st) 160687 (8/7/2017). The former employer sued for breach of the noncompetition agreement. It alleged that the former employee breached the agreement by attempting to solicit and recruit its employees for his new employer, a competitor, through LinkedIn requests to induce them to sever their employment with the plaintiff and join the competitor. The noncompetition provision stated that during the term of his employment contract and for 24 months thereafter, he was prohibited from inducing or attempting to induce any employee to sever his or her employment relationship or sell insurance for any competitor.
On July 18, 2017, the Illinois Appellate Court, First District, affirmed the trial court's judgment in favor of an executive employee against his employer in the amount of $2,838,968 for his earned bonus and severance pay. Schultze v. ABN AMRO, Inc., et al., 2017 IL App (1st) 162140 (7/18/2017). The plaintiff filed a lawsuit alleging that the defendants violated the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act (the "Act") by failing to pay him the proper amount of his earned bonus and severance pay. After trial, the trial court ruled in favor of the plaintiff, and ordered the defendants to pay him $2 million as an earned bonus and $375,000 as severance, plus 5% interest and attorneys' fees. On appeal, the defendants argued that the bonus was discretionary and that the plaintiff failed to execute a separation agreement and release that was a condition of receiving any severance.
On July 17, 2017, the Illinois Appellate Court, First District, held that punitive damages are recoverable under Illinois law in the employment law claim for negligent hiring, supervision or retention of a dangerous employee, even if the employer lacked actual knowledge of the employee's dangerous propensity. John Doe v. The Catholic Bishop of Chicago, et al., 2017 IL App (1st) 162388 (First Dist. 7/17/2017). The plaintiff in this case filed a negligent employment claim against the defendant, in which he alleged that a former priest sexually molested him while he attended a school that employed the priest. He claimed punitive damages. On appeal, the First District considered the question of whether a claim for punitive damages requires proof of an employer's conscious disregard for an employee's particular unfitness, where the underlying claim is for negligent hiring, supervision and retention of that employee.
On May 23, 2017, the Illinois Appellate Court, First District, held that the non-renewal of an independent contractor's employment contract with the State of Illinois constitutes adverse job action for purposes of a retaliatory discharge claim under the State Ethics Act. Wynn v. Illinois Department of Human Services, 2017 IL App (1st) 160344 (May 23, 2017). In this case, a contract employee alleged that the state violated the Illinois Ethics Act by intentionally not renewing his independent contractor employment agreement in retaliation for his protected activity of reporting an alleged improper, unauthorized state expenditure to an auditor. After a one-day bench trial, the plaintiff was awarded $782,253.
On February 24, 2017, the Illinois Appellate Court, First District, reversed an order of summary judgment in favor of a defendant employer in a lawsuit for breach of an employment agreement. Rosenberger v. United Community Bancshares, Inc., 2017 IL App (1st) 161102 (2/24/2017). This case involved an executive employment contract that provided the executive, a Chief Lending Officer, with a 3-year term of employment. The contract contained a severance compensation provision, which stated that if the company terminated the executive's employment prior to the expiration of his employment term for any reason other than cause, the executive would be entitled to a lump-sum severance payment equal to two times his annual base salary then if effect.
On December 20, 2016, the Illinois Appellate Court, First District, reversed an order of the trial court that had dismissed an employee's claims for breach of an employment agreement and promissory estoppel. Boswell v. City of Chicago, 2016 IL App (1st) 150871 (12/20/2016). Promissory estoppel is an employment law claim that is not dependent upon the existence of an employment contract. To state a claim for promissory estoppel, a employee must allege: (1) the employer made an unambiguous promise; (2) he relied on the promise; (3) his reliance was expected and foreseeable; and (4) he relied on the promise to his detriment. In this case, the employee alleged that the employer made representations that his employment would include certain terms and conditions, upon which he reasonably relied to his detriment by resigning from his previous employment and relocating his family to Chicago.