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Illinois Supreme Court Clarifies Retaliatory Discharge Standard

Can I be fired for being a whistleblower in Illinois?

It is illegal in Illinois to fire someone for being a whistleblower.  The Illinois Supreme Court made an interesting ruling in the case of Michael v. Precision Alliance Group, LLC., 2014 IL 117378.   The ruling helps clarify the standard in Illinois for retaliatory discharge cases.     The Court explained that “while there is no precise definition of what constitutes clearly mandated public policy, a review of Illinois case law reveals that retaliatory discharge actions have been allowed in two settings: where an employee is discharged for filing, or in anticipation of filing, a claim under the Workers’ Compensation Act (820 ILCS 305/1 et seq. (West 1992)); or where an employee is discharged in retaliation for the reporting of illegal or improper conduct, otherwise known as “whistleblowing.” Jacobson v. Knepper & Moga, P.C., 185 Ill. 2d 372, 376 (1998). The rationale is that, in these situations, an employer could effectively frustrate a significant public policy by using its power of dismissal in a coercive manner. Therefore, recognition of a cause of action for retaliatory discharge is considered necessary to vindicate the public policy underlying the employee’s activity, and to deter employer conduct inconsistent with that policy. To sustain a cause of action for retaliatory discharge, an employee must prove: (1) the employer discharged the employee, (2) the discharge was in retaliation for the employee’s activities (causation), and (3) the discharge violates a clear mandate of public policy.”

In essence, retaliatory discharge/whistleblower cases arise when an employee is wrongfully fired in retaliation for an activity that relate to something important to public policy.   Examples of retaliatory discharge/whistleblowing cases that are sometimes raised involve when an employer is involved in illegal misconduct, cheating the government, or violating other laws.

The Supreme Court clarified that the burden of proof is on the employee to demonstrate their case.  The Court held that “in retaliatory discharge cases, an employer is not required to come forward with an explanation for the employee’s discharge, although an employer may choose to offer a reason if it desires. Id. If an employer provides a reason for the employee’s dismissal, that does not automatically defeat a retaliatory discharge claim. However, “if an employer chooses to come forward with a valid, nonpretextual basis for discharging its employees and the trier of fact believes it, the causation element required to be proven is not met.” Id. Again, the burden rests on plaintiff to prove each of the elements of the cause of action.”

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