Illinois Supreme Court Affirms Dismissal of Retaliatory Discharge Lawsuit

On February 4, 2021, the Illinois Supreme Court affirmed the dismissal of claims for retaliatory discharge and violation of the Illinois Whistleblower Protection Act.  Rehfield v. Diocese of Joliet, 2021 IL 125656 (Feb. 4, 2021).  Plaintiff alleged that defendant unlawfully retaliated against her by terminating her for reporting a parent’s threatening conduct to police.  Plaintiff alleged that her employment termination violated Illinois public policy to investigate and prosecute criminal offenses.  She further alleged that defendant’s actions were likely to make other staff and faculty members reluctant to come forward to report potentially unlawful or criminal conduct.  Plaintiff also alleged that defendant’s actions violated the Illinois Whistleblower Act, which prohibits Illinois employers from retaliating against Illinois employees for disclosing information to a law enforcement agency, provided that the employee has reasonable cause to believe the information discloses a violation of a state or federal law, rule, or regulation.

Defendant argued that plaintiff’s retaliatory discharge claim was properly dismissed because plaintiff was not an at-will employee.  The Illinois common law tort of retaliatory discharge is an exception to the general rule that an ‘at-will’ employee may be terminated at any time for any or no cause.  To establish a claim for retaliatory discharge under Illinois law, a plaintiff must show: (1) that she has been discharged; (2) in retaliation for her protected activities; and (3) that the discharge violates a clear mandate of public policy.  Illinois courts have refused to recognize a claim for any injury short of “actual discharge,” meaning termination of an “at-will” employee—one whose employment has a nonspecific duration that can be terminated for any reason.  The Illinois Appellate Court has consistently refused to extend the reach of retaliatory discharge claims to cover the non-renewal of a fixed-term employment contract.  After plaintiff’s duties were terminated, she continued to be paid according to the terms of her contract until it's expiration date.  Her employment was contractual; she was not an at-will employee.  Therefore, the Plaintiff could not state a claim for common law retaliatory discharge under Illinois law.

Plaintiff's statutory claim under the Illinois Whistleblower Act was subject to dismissal under the "ministerial exception."  Under this doctrine, religious organizations have a broad right to control the selection (and employment) of their own religious leaders without judicial review or governmental interference, as part of the free exercise of religion under the Constitution.  This right is constitutionally protected against state interference.  The Plaintiff's employment, as a principal of the Defendant's Catholic school, fell within the scope of the ministerial exception based on the nature of her job responsibilities.  Therefore, her Whistleblower Act claim was barred by the ministerial exception.