Non-renewal of Employment Contract Constitutes Adverse Employment Action for Retaliation Claim

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.

The state appealed on the grounds that the non-renewal did not constitute retaliatory adverse action and that the judgment was against the manifest weight of the evidence.  The appellate court affirmed the judgment of the trial court.  By analogy to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended ("Title VII"), under which actions that significantly alter the terms and conditions of employment constitute adverse employment action, the appellate court extrapolated that the non-renewal of the plaintiff's contract amounted to retaliatory adverse job action under the state Ethics Act.  In so doing, however, the appellate court distinguished this case from Illinois common law retaliatory discharge tort claims, as to which Illinois courts have reached the opposite result.  The appellate court also found that the judgment was well-supported by the record evidence, which sufficiently demonstrated a retaliatory intent on the part of the state.