Without evidence that the manager who made the decision to discharge him had known about his injury (even though employees in different departments had known), an employee’s termination was not causally related to his filing a claim under the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act, the Seventh Circuit has found, affirming the dismissal of the employee’s workers’ compensation retaliatory discharge claim. Beatty v. Olin Corp., No. 11-2853 (7th Cir. Sept. 6, 2012).
Jared Beatty worked as an adjustor in a manufacturing plant. He was injured at work and received a no-work note from his doctor. Over the next two month, he did not show up for work but for two days, when he reported for light duty. All communications during this time were with his employer’s medical department.
A clerk in Beatty’s plant division told the company’s Manager of Labor Relations that Beatty had been absent and had not called in “for a couple of weeks.” Company rules required employees to report their absences daily unless they had prior written approval for an absence; failure to report for three consecutive working days was grounds for termination. Therefore, in response to the information provided by the plant clerk, the Manager of Labor Relations ordered Beatty’s employment terminated based on his unexcused absences.
Beatty subsequently sought and received a workers’ compensation settlement from the company. He then sued the employer for retaliatory discharge under Illinois law in federal court. The employer moved for summary judgment based on the lack of evidence of a causal connection between Beatty’s discharge and his exercise of workers’ compensation rights. The district court granted the motion and entered judgment for the employer. Beatty appealed.
Illinois has recognized a common-law cause of action for retaliatory discharge where an employee is terminated because of his actual or anticipated exercise of workers’ compensation rights. The Illinois Supreme Court has emphasized that the retaliatory-discharge cause of action is a “narrow” and “limited” exception to the at-will employment doctrine.
To prevail on a claim of retaliatory discharge, the plaintiff has the burden of proving three elements: (1) that he was an employee before the injury; (2) that he exercised a right granted by the Workers’ Compensation Act; and (3) that he was discharged and the discharge was causally related to his filing a claim under the Workers’ Compensation Act. With respect to the causation element, the ultimate issue to be decided is the employer’s motive in discharging the employee.
The Court of Appeals agreed with the district court in granting summary judgment in favor of the employer that no evidence supported Beatty’s claim he was fired because of his assertion or anticipated assertion of workers’ compensation rights. The termination decision was made by the company’s Manager of Labor Relations, who was responsible for making those types of determinations. Since there was no evidence that the Manager had discussed Beatty’s status with the medical department or anyone else who knew of his injury, Beatty failed to prove that his discharge was causally related to his filing a claim under the Workers’ Compensation Act.
Even if Beatty’s termination was based on incorrect or incomplete information, the Court explained, the retaliatory-discharge cause of action is narrow and requires evidence of retaliatory motive, not just sloppy personnel practices. The Court said the critical fact was that the Manager did not know about Beatty’s injury or medical condition when he issued the termination order. That the company’s right hand did not know what its left hand was doing is not actionable as a retaliatory discharge. Beatty claimed that the Manager knew or should have known about his medical status and possible workers’ compensation claim, and that a reasonable jury could reject the Manager’s claim of ignorance as dishonest. Because Beatty offered no evidence to support his contention that the Manager knew or should have known of his injury or medical status, the Court rejected that argument. While Beatty was permitted to miss work based on his doctor’s notes, he was not excused from the company’s policy requiring employees to call in their absences, the Court said.
As a practical matter, this case is more helpful for larger employers with many departments than for employers with small facilities. Beatty demonstrates that if the manager who makes a discharge decision is completely unaware of an employee’s injury or any anticipated or pending workers’ compensation claim, the employee will not be able to prove that retaliatory motive tainted the discharge decision. So long as the decision to terminate employment complied with company policy, and no communications or other evidence link the decision maker with knowledge of the injury, the employee will not be able to prove the requisite causal link between his filing a claim under the workers’ compensation statute and the termination decision.