On August 23, 2016, the 7th Circuit reversed a $2 million jury verdict on an Illinois workers’ compensation retaliatory discharge claim. Hillmann v. City of Chicago, No. 14-3438 & 14-3494 (7th Cir. 8/23/2016). The plaintiff worked for the City in its Department of Streets and Sanitation for three decades, until the City eliminated his position in a reduction-in-force (“RIF”). He filed a lawsuit against the City alleging that he was targeted for elimination in the RIF because he exercised his rights under the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act (“IWCA”) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). After a jury trial on the IWCA retaliation claim, the jury returned a $2 million damages verdict in favor of the plaintiff. The judge found for the City after a bench trial on the ADA retaliation claim. Both sides appealed.
The 7th Circuit held that both the IWCA and ADA retaliatory discharge claims failed as a matter of law because the plaintiff did not meet his burden of proof to establish a causal relationship between his protected activity and the adverse job actions. Under Illinois law, there is a common-law claim for retaliatory discharge where an employee is terminated because of his or her actual or anticipated exercise of workers’ compensation rights. This claim is a narrow and limited exception to the employment at-will doctrine in Illinois. To prevail on a workers’ compensation retaliatory discharge claim, the plaintiff was required to prove three elements: (1) he was employed by the City at the time of his injury; (2) he exercised a right granted by the IWCA; and (3) his discharge was causally related to the exercise of his rights under the IWCA. These cases usually come down to the element of causation, which is difficult to prove. The ultimate issue for causation is the employer’s motive for discharging the employee. At a minimum, proof of causation requires that the decision-maker knew that the employee intended to file or had filed a workers’ compensation claim. There was no evidence that the decision-maker who included the plaintiff in the RIF knew about his workers’ compensation claim and, therefore, the IWCA retaliatory discharge claim failed as a matter of law.
The plaintiff also alleged that he was targeted for inclusion in the RIF because he requested a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. To prevail on his ADA retaliation claim, the plaintiff was required to prove that his request for an accommodation was the but-for cause of his inclusion in the RIF. The 7th Circuit agreed with the district court that there was no nexus between the plaintiff’s request for an accommodation and the inclusion of his position in the RIF.
Due to the lack of evidence to prove the element of causation on either claim, the City was entitled to judgment as a matter of law on both claims.