On June 27, 2016, the 7th Circuit reversed an order of summary judgment in a workers’ compensation retaliatory discharge lawsuit under Illinois law. Baptist v. Ford Motor Company, No. 15-2913 (7th Cir. 6/27/2016). The plaintiff, a former forklift operator, claimed that he was fired in retaliation for exercising his right to pursue a claim under the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act. To prevail on a common-law claim for retaliatory discharge under Illinois law, a plaintiff must establish that the discharge was primarily in retaliation for his exercise of a protected right. The 7th Circuit concluded that summary judgment was improper due to conflicting evidence about whether the defendant’s motivation for the discharge was retaliatory.
The circumstances surrounding the discharge created a factual dispute about the defendant’s true motivation. There were conflicting opinions between the company’s doctor and the plaintiff’s doctor about whether and when the plaintiff could return to his forklift position, and whether work restrictions were necessary. The company doctor’s order clearing the plaintiff to return to his forklift position without any restrictions against the opinion of his own doctor raised a question of whether the company doctor doubted and was hostile to his workers’ compensation claim. There were also conflicting statements about whether a manager told the plaintiff that he would be fired unless he agreed to state that his injury did not happen at work. These and other circumstances raised an issue about whether the defendant’s stated reason for its adverse employment decision, failure to return to his position, was pretext for unlawful retaliation. In light of the genuine issues of material fact over the defendant’s motivation for the plaintiff’s discharge, summary judgment was inappropriate.