The Illinois Supreme Court recently clarified the element of causation in its ruling in Michael v. Precision Alliance Group, LLC, 21 N.E.3d 1183 (Ill. 2014). In Michael, employees who reported about certain practices of Precision’s that resulted in an investigation by the Department of Agriculture, and whose employment was subsequently terminated, brought a retaliatory discharge action against the company.

The trial court applied the three part McDonnell Douglas  burden of proof analysis, and concluded that the plaintiffs established a prima facie case after being discharged a short time after they reported Precision’s practices, and, therefore, there was “a causal nexus” between the reporting and their firing. Precision, however, articulated legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons (documented horseplay and a reduction in work force) for their discharge, and argued that the plaintiffs failed to prove the articulated reason for the discharge was pretextual. The trial court concluded that the plaintiffs failed to meet the their burden under the three part burden of proof analysis. The appellate court reversed the trial court decision. On appeal, the Illinois Fifth District Appellate Court reversed, stating that the trial court had erroneously increased the plaintiffs’ burden once it had established a “causal nexus.” The case was remanded to the trial court for further proceedings on the issue of damages, since the trial court found a causal nexus between the protected activities and the discharge. Precision appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court.

The Illinois Supreme Court stated that, although the trial court came to the correct resolution, a finding of a “causal nexus” needed for establishing a prima facie case of discrimination under the three partMcDonnell Douglas test is not the equivalent of a finding of causation in retaliatory discharge cases in Illinois. When deciding the element of causation, the ultimate issue is the employer’s motive in discharging the employee; and, if the employer comes forward with a valid, nonpretextual basis for discharging its employees and the trier of fact believes it, then the causation element required to be proven is not met. Furthermore, when the tier of fact believes the employer’s proffered reasons, the Illinois Supreme Court also rejected the argument that more than one proximate cause may exist. The multiple causation concept does not apply in the context of narrowly-defined claims for retaliatory discharge.

In the event an employee is engaged in a protected activity, such as the filing or anticipation of filing a claim under the Workers’ Compensation Act or reporting illegal conduct (whistleblowing), employers in Illinois are well advised to accurately document all employee insubordination.  Employers can defeat a claim of retaliatory discharge if it puts forth a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason, and the trier of fact believes it.