On December 4, 2014, the Illinois Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Illinois Appellate Court and affirmed the judgment of the Circuit Court in favor of the defendant in an Illinois common law retaliatory discharge case. Michael v. Precision Alliance Group, 2014 IL 117376 (12-4-2014). The plaintiffs alleged that they were terminated for reporting underweight seed bags to the Illinois Department of Agriculture. The defendant contended that it discharged one of the plaintiffs for misconduct and selected the other two for elimination as part of a reduction-in-force. After a bench trial, the circuit court entered judgment in favor the defendant, applying the McDonnell Douglas proof paradigm used in federal employment discrimination cases. The court found that although the plaintiffs established a “causal nexus” between their protected activity and employment terminations, the defendant articulated legitimate reasons for the terminations, which the plaintiffs failed to prove were pretextual. The appellate court reversed on the basis that the circuit court’s finding of a “causal nexus” necessarily proved causation and sealed the case for the plaintiffs. The appellate court reasoned that since the plaintiffs had proved causation, they were not required to prove pretext.
The Illinois Supreme Court disagreed, concluding that the circuit court’s finding of a “causal nexus” did not amount to a finding that the plaintiffs established causation. The Illinois Supreme Court restated the proper standard and burden of proof for the Illinois common law tort of retaliatory discharge. The 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. The plaintiff must always establish a causal relationship between the employee’s activities and the discharge. The employer is not required to come forward with an explanation for the discharge, but may chose to do so. If the employer provides a reason for the discharge, that does not automatically defeat the retaliatory discharge claim. However, if the employer comes forward with a valid, nonpretextual basis for the discharge, and the trier of fact believes it, the required causation element cannot be met. Since the circuit court found that the defendant’s reasons for the employment terminations were valid and nonpretextual, the plaintiffs did not prove causation, and the circuit court properly entered judgment in favor of the defendant, albeit applying the wrong standard. The Illinois Supreme court clarified that the McDonnell Douglass test for federal employment discrimination cases is not the proper standard for Illinois retaliatory discharge cases.