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Retaliatory Discharge and the Public Policy Rule in Illinois

Dec. 18, 2017

Many employees think that they can sue a former employer for retaliatory discharge just because they were unfairly fired. Illinois law is not this clear cut, however. Just because an employer’s actions were unfair doesn’t mean they were necessarily illegal and you’re entitled to compensation.

In Illinois, retaliatory discharge is a common law tort, meaning that it is not codified in any statute. Illinois courts have repeatedly held that to prevail on a claim of retaliatory discharge, a plaintiff must prove three elements: 1. That he was discharged; 2. That the discharge was in retaliation for his activities; and 3. That the discharge violates a clear mandate of public policy.

The Many Definitions of Public Policy in Illinois Case Law

Usually the first element is not in dispute. Many employers do dispute whether a discharge was in fact in response to specific activities, but even more disputed than that is whether the discharge violated public policy.

In the 1978 case Kelsay v. Motorola, the first Illinois case to recognize retaliatory discharge, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiff, finding that despite Illinois’ status as an at-will state, the plaintiff’s former employer had violated public policy by firing him for filing a workers’ compensation claim. This was a fairly straightforward case, as few people could make the argument that an employee should be filed on these grounds alone. In 2016, such an argument would not go very far at all in Illinois courts.

In the following years, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled in favor of former employees in cases where plaintiffs were fired for reporting suspected crimes or refusing to handle nuclear waste in violation of federal law.

However, Illinois courts have also narrowed what constitutes a violation of public policy in recent years. Following Kelsay, appellate courts have upheld discharges of employees who were dismissed for reporting that a coworker committed suicide because of work-related stress, or for complaining about non-compete clauses. In the case of non-compete clauses, the court of appeals found there was no violation of public policy because such contracts do not affect the welfare of all citizens.

And most recently in Lucas v. Cook County, the Court of Appeals for the First District in 2013 upheld the discharge of a physician who refused to treat male patients for STDs after spending her entire career only treating female patients. The doctor claimed she was simply not competent to treat male patients and was fired by the county. The court held that the doctor had not identified a clearly mandated public policy that amounted to a retaliatory discharge.

Contact an Employment Discrimination Lawyer Today

Retaliatory discharge cases can be tough to prove in Illinois because a plaintiff has to show that the discharge was against a public policy, and exactly what constitutes a valid public policy can vary widely between cases. But an experienced Roselle employment discrimination attorney can help you build your retaliatory discharge case. Contact the Law Office of Michael T. Smith today for a consultation.