Most Illinoisans are aware that the law offers them some sort of protection when their employer fires them for following the law. However, few know what these protections are and when they apply. The Illinois Whistleblower Act protects employees who warn the government about their employer's illegal activity. The Illinois Human Rights Act protects employees who oppose employment discrimination or sexual harassment. There are federal and state laws addressing retaliation related to worker's compensation, safety and health, and toxic substances.
But what protects an employee from retaliation in situations that aren't named in any of these laws? Retaliatory discharge for violation of common law is a “catch all” when no other law applies.
Illinois Retaliatory Discharge Claims Protect Public Policy and Employees Terminated for Following Public Policy
How does a retaliatory discharge lawsuit protect public policy? Employers have a lot of power to undermine laws by threatening to fire employees who exercise their rights or refuse to do something illegal. Because lawmakers can't predict every possible scenario, retaliatory discharge lawsuits are a tool when none of the laws discussed above apply.
In most cases, employers in Illinois don't have to give a reason for terminating an employee. In a retaliatory discharge case, it's up the employee to prove what happened. Retaliatory discharge only applies in the following cases:
- Retaliatory discharge only protects employees who are actually discharged (fired, terminated, or laid-off). It doesn't apply in the case of demotions, reduction in pay, or other types of workplace retaliation.
- The employee was terminated because the employee took an action (such as filing a health insurance claim or reporting an ethics violation) or the employee refused to take an action (such as refusing to commit a crime).
- The employee doesn't have a case under the Whistleblower Act or any other statutory remedy.
Northern District of Illinois Reiterates that Retaliatory Discharge Claim Only Applies When There are No Other Statutory Remedies
In August, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois dismissed a former executive's retaliatory discharge claim against infant formula company, Mead Johnson Nutrition. After working for the company for 25 years, the plaintiff believed she was let go during a round of layoffs because she raised safety concerns about the company's infant formula. The Court ruled that Illinois law didn't apply since the plaintiff worked mostly out of an Indiana location rather than the company's headquarters in Illinois. The Court also noted that the retaliatory discharge claim would not have applied because the Plaintiff could have relied on whistleblower protections.
Because Illinois has a Whistle Blower Act, it's more difficult for a whistleblower to bring a retaliatory discharge claim, even in cases when an employee has complained only to a supervisor and not to a government agency. In the case illustrated above, the plaintiff complained to other executives and filed internal complaints, and this made her eligible for federal whistleblower protection. An experienced employment lawyer can help a terminated employee understand what protections are best available to compensate them for a wrongful discharge.