Last week, the Illinois Supreme Court reaffirmed the principle that retaliatory discharge is a narrow exception to the general doctrine of at-will employment under Illinois law. Unanimously reversing the Fifth District of the Appellate Court in Michael v. Precision Alliance Group, LLC, the Court held that where an employer chooses to give a valid, nonpretextual reason for an employee’s dismissal and the trier of fact believes it, the plaintiff has failed to prove causation and the plaintiff’s claim fails. Our detailed report on the underlying facts and lower court opinions in Michael is here. Our report on the oral argument is here.

The defendant in Michael grows, conditions, packages and distributes soybean seeds for commercial use. In late 2002, the defendant began experiencing a problem with underweight seed bags. After finding that an outgoing load was underweight, the defendant began randomly checking bags in the warehouse. In January 2003, the plaintiffs began weighing bags on their own, without the defendant’s knowledge, and reporting the results to a recently terminated employee. The recently terminated employee allegedly turned the data over to the Illinois Department of Agriculture.

Inspectors for the Department appeared at the plan in February 2003, resulting in five stop sale orders.   After the inspectors left, production was halted for 10 days while employees weighed every bag in the warehouse. Certain bags shipped prior to the Department’s inspection were returned to the warehouse, weighed and brought up to proper weight as well. During the Department’s inspection, an assistant plan manager began investigating the source of reports to the Department.

The following month, one of the three plaintiffs was terminated. The defendant testified that the terminated plaintiff had been engaged in horseplay with a forklift, although the plaintiff denied it. Not long after, the defendant’s corporate office decided to eliminate 22 positions across 8 holding companies. The remaining two plaintiffs were among the four employees at defendant’s plant selected for termination.

Based on evidence at trial that management staff was unaware that any of the plaintiffs were involved in the reports to the Department at the time of their terminations, the trial court entered judgment for the defendant. The trial court held that although a “causal nexus” existed between the plaintiffs’ protected activity and their termination, the presumption of retaliation was overcome by the defendants’ proof of a legitimate, non-pretextual reason for the terminations. The Fifth District reversed, holding that once the trial court found a “causal nexus” between the plaintiffs’ reports and their termination, causation was proven. Requiring the plaintiffs to prove that defendants’ articulated reasons for the termination were mere pretext amounted to asking the plaintiffs to disprove the defendants’ defenses.

In an opinion by Justice Burke, the Supreme Court reversed. The claim of retaliatory discharge had three elements, the Court wrote: (1) termination; (2) in retaliation for the plaintiff’s protected activities; and (3) the discharge violates a clear mandate of public policy. The employer is not required to give an alternative reason for the employee’s discharge, and merely articulating such a reason doesn’t defeat the claim. But if the employer suggests an alternative reason and the trier of fact believes it, then by definition causation can’t be proven, and the plaintiff’s claim fails.

The Appellate Court’s error actually stemmed from the trial court’s analysis, according to the Supreme Court. The trial court had applied a multi-factor analysis very similar to the test in Federal retaliatory discharge cases, where a finding of “causal nexus” is necessary to establish a prima facie case of discrimination. But the three-part Federal test didn’t apply under Illinois state law, the Court noted – therefore, “causal nexus” wasn’t the same as causation.

The plaintiff argued in the alternative that even if the trier of fact believed the defendants’ legitimate reasons for the discharge, plaintiff could still prevail for retaliatory discharge because there can be more than one proximate cause for the adverse employment action. The Court disagreed: once the trier of fact believes the defendant’s showing of an alternative reason, plaintiff’s case fails.

Image courtesy of Flickr by Starr Environmental (no changes).