Illinois Appellate Court Explains Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress in the Employment Context

On October 27, 2020, the Illinois Appellate Court, First District, affirmed an order of summary judgment in favor of an employer-defendant in an Illinois state court lawsuit for retaliatory discharge and intentional infliction of emotional distress.  Dipietro v. GATX Corp., 2020 IL App (1st) 192196.  The plaintiff alleged that her termination of employment violated clearly mandated public policy announced in the Illinois Employee Sick Leave Act (the "Act") and the Chicago Minimum Wage and Paid Sick Leave Ordinance.  The defendant moved for summary judgment on the grounds that: (1) the plaintiff did not engage in any protected activity; (2) her discharge did not violate public policy; (3) there was no causal connection between her complaints and her termination; and (4) the proffered reason for her termination was not pretextual.  The defendant also argued that its alleged conduct was not sufficiently outrageous to support the plaintiff's claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress, and that her claimed emotional distress was not actionable.

The trial court found that the plaintiff's discharge did not violate a clearly mandated public policy because her complaint (regarding the tracking of her sick leave) only related to the defendant's internal leave of absence policy, and not the Act.  The trial court also concluded that the plaintiff's intentional infliction of emotional distress claim failed because her supervisor's alleged conduct, requiring the plaintiff to track her leave using the defendant's program, seeking negative information about her from co-workers, and falsely documenting conversations and counseling sessions to justify her termination, was not sufficiently extreme and outrageous.  On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment because: (1) her termination violated the public policy announced in the Act of allowing employees to utilize their sick leave to care for family members; and (2) her supervisor's actions of allegedly lying about the plaintiff's work performance, creating false documentation of counseling sessions, and backdating documents were extreme and outrageous in light of her power over the plaintiff and the lack of any legitimate interest in doing so. 

Under Illinois employment law, employment for a non-contracted employee is "at will," meaning that the employer is free to terminate the employee for any or no reason at all.  A claim for retaliatory discharge provides a narrow and limited exception to this general rule, if an employee can establish that: (1) she was discharged by the employer; (2) in retaliation for her protected activities; and (3) the discharge violates clearly mandated public policy.  However, unless a plaintiff identifies a specific expression of public policy that the employer violated, the employer may terminate her employment with or without cause.  In this case, the appellate court agreed with the trial court, that the use of the defendant's internal leave tracking program did not violate the Act.  Additionally, the appellate court concluded that the plaintiff's termination, even if done in retaliation for her complaints about the use of the defendant's leave tracking program, did not violate the Act, which prohibits the termination of an employee for complaining about policies only if the complained-of policy violates the Act.  The defendant's policy that employees take and/or track their leave in half-day increments does not violate the Act; therefore, the plaintiff's termination did not violate the clearly mandated policy of the Act.

To establish a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress under Illinois law, a plaintiff must plead and prove that: (1) the defendant's conduct was extreme and outrageous; (2) the defendant intended her conduct to cause severe emotional distress or knew that there was a high probability that her conduct would cause severe emotional distress; and (3) the defendant's conduct did, in fact, cause severe emotional distress to the plaintiff.  To be considered extreme and outrageous, the defendant's conduct "must go beyond mere insults, indignities, threats, annoyances, petty oppressions, or other trivialities."  It is also insufficient that the defendant acted with the intention of causing emotional distress, a tortious or criminal intent, or even malice.  "Liability has been found only where the conduct has been so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency, and to be regarded as atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized community."  In assessing the extreme and outrageous nature of a defendant's alleged behavior, courts consider a number of factors, including: (1) the degree of power that the defendant held over the plaintiff; (2) whether the defendant reasonably believed that the objective of her conduct was legitimate; and (3) the defendant's knowledge that the plaintiff was particularly susceptible to emotional distress.  This list of factors is not exhaustive, nor is any one or all of these factors necessary to state a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress. 

In the employment context, courts are hesitant to find a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress because "courts are concerned that, if everyday job stresses resulting from discipline, personality conflicts, job transfers or even terminations could give rise to a cause of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress, nearly every employee would have a cause of action."  Thus, because employers must often take actions in the course of employment that may cause emotional distress to employees, liability for a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress in the employment context will only be found "where the conduct is truly egregious." 

The plaintiff alleged that in retaliation for her complaining about how her sick leave was being tracked, her supervisor lied about her performance, fabricated documentation of counseling sessions that never occurred, and backdated a document to make it appear that it was a contemporaneous documentation of a counseling session.  The plaintiff argued that these actions were exacerbated and rendered extreme and outrageous because the defendants were in a position of power over her and there was no legitimate basis for her termination.  However, even taking into consideration the defendants' position of power over the plaintiff, this in itself was not sufficient to elevate the circumstances surrounding the plaintiff's termination to extreme and outrageous, given that all employers have power over their employees.  The appellate court concluded that "the termination of an employee by an employer is not extreme and outrageous just because the employee disputes the merits of the termination and the employer holds power over the employee, since an employee will almost always deny that the termination was warranted and an employer always holds power over an employee....[B]ecause such a situation merely represents an everyday situation in employment relationships, it is not truly egregious."