The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently raised the bar for proving retaliatory discharge claims under Illinois common law in federal court, holding that a plaintiff cannot prevail based solely on evidence that the employer’s stated reason for the discharge was false. Rather, the plaintiff must prove that his protected action was the cause of his termination. Gacek v. American Airlines

Gacek, a former baggage handler for American Airlines, injured his finger while unloading baggage. He was diagnosed with a sprained finger and released to light duty work with a splint. The following week, Gacek called in sick with the flu for three consecutive days. American learned that Gacek had misrepresented the facts surrounding his sick calls, and terminated his employment for violating the airline’s attendance policy and rules of conduct. Gacek then filed suit against the airline in federal district court, alleging that he was fired in retaliation for exercising his rights under the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Act. The district court granted summary judgment for American, and Gacek appealed.

On appeal, the Seventh Circuit considered whether the standard of proof for Gacek’s retaliatory discharge claim was governed by Illinois state law or the “burden-shifting” approach often used to decide employment discrimination cases under federal law. Under the burden-shifting approach, the plaintiff first establishes a prima facie case of discrimination by showing that he or she was a member of a protected group, met the employer’s legitimate expectations, and that a similarly situated employee outside the protected group was not fired. Once the plaintiff does so, the burden shifts back to the employer to present evidence of a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the plaintiff’s termination. If the employer does so, the burden shifts back to the employee to present evidence demonstrating that the employer’s stated reasons for the discharge were a pretext for discrimination.

While this approach is often applied to employment discrimination claims in both state and federal court, the Illinois Supreme Court has specifically refused to extend it to retaliatory discharge claims under Illinois common law. Rather, under Illinois law, the plaintiff must affirmatively prove that his or her protected activity caused the discharge, and may not rely solely upon evidence calling the employer’s stated reasons for the discharge into doubt. Because this standard is materially different from the federal burden-shifting analysis and the difference is rooted in a substantive policy of the state, the Seventh Circuit concluded that the state policy must apply even when state claims are litigated in federal court, and that it was not enough for Gacek to simply prove that the airline's stated reasons for discharge were pre-textual.

This ruling is a clear victory for Illinois employers. By raising the bar for proving a claim of retaliatory discharge under Illinois common law, this Seventh Circuit decision could make all the difference in a close case.