Seventh Circuit Affirms Summary Judgment for Employer on Illinois Common Law Retaliatory Discharge Claim

On February 20, 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed an order of summary judgment in favor of a defendant-employer on an Illinois common law retaliatory discharge claim.  Walker v. Ingersoll Cutting Tool Company, No. 18-2673 (7th Cir. Feb. 20, 2019).  The employer discharged the employee after he was involved in a physical altercation with another employee.  He sued the employer, alleging race discrimination under Title VII and retaliatory discharge under Illinois law.  The district court granted summary judgment for the employer on all claims.  On appeal, the plaintiff abandoned his Title VII racial discrimination claim.  The retaliatory discharge claim failed for lack of evidence of a causal connection between any protected activity and the plaintiff's discharge.

The plaintiff claimed that the defendant had fired him for reporting a crime in connection with the altercation.  Under Illinois common law, a plaintiff may establish a claim for retaliatory discharge with evidence that: (1) the employer discharged the employee; (2) in retaliation for the employee's protected activities; and (3) the discharge violated a clear mandate of public policy.  The Illinois common law tort of retaliatory discharge is an exception to the Illinois doctrine of employment "at-will."  It is the plaintiff's burden to prove a causal connection between his protected activity and the discharge.  The plaintiff failed to meet his burden to establish that the discharge was primarily in retaliation for his exercise of a protected right.  The fact that the defendant had made its termination decision two days before the plaintiff had filed his police report was fatal to the plaintiff's claim.  The reverse sequence of events precluded any finding of a causal connection without any other cognizable protected activity that preceded the discharge.