On October 29, 2015, the Northern District of Illinois concluded that an employee who called police regarding suspected shoplifting—in violation of company policy—succeeded in proving a claim under the Illinois Whistleblower Act (IWA).  Coffey v. DSW Shoe Warehouse, Inc., No. 14-cv-4365.  The court granted the Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment and denied the Defendant’s motion for summary judgment, rejecting the Defendant’s argument that the Act protects only employees who report their employer’s bad actions only—and not the actions of third-parties.

Background

Plaintiff was working as an Assistant Store Manager for the Defendant when she called police about suspected shoplifting.  The Company terminated her employment a few days later as it believed she violated its policy prohibiting employees in her position from calling police regarding suspected shoplifting.  The policy instead directed employees to use a variety of customer service techniques to prevent shoplifting, and to contact internal loss prevention managers if needed—but not to contact law enforcement or mall security guards when shoplifting was suspected.  Plaintiff filed suit alleging that her discharge violated the Illinois Whistleblower Act, 740 ILCS § 174/15.

The parties filed cross motions for summary judgment directed primarily at the legal issue of whether Plaintiff could state a claim under the IWA based on her report of wrongdoing by third-parties (i.e., the potential shoplifters).  The IWA prohibits an employer from “retaliat[ing] against an employee for disclosing information to a government or law enforcement agency, where the employee has reasonable cause to believe that the information discloses a violation of a State or federal law, rule or regulation.”  The court concluded that the Act was intended to protect whistleblowers who alerted authorities regarding wrong-doing of third parties, not just the employer’s wrong-doing.

Implications

Employers with Illinois operations should consider revisiting policies related to employees’ contacts with law enforcement or other authorities in light of this decision.  Notably, this decision comes shortly after a California Appellate Court reached a similar conclusion.