The Illinois Supreme Court recently held in Blount v. Stroud, 2009 Ill. LEXIS 181 (Jan. 23, 2009) that an employee can bring an employment discrimination claim under the federal Civil Rights Act of 1866, 42 U.S.C. § 1981 (“§ 1981”) – under which employees can sue for race discrimination and harassment, and retaliation – directly in Illinois state court. In doing so, the Court rejected well-established precedent prohibiting this access to state courts for federal employment discrimination claims. Prior to Blount, the Illinois Appellate Court routinely rejected attempts by plaintiffs to bring their federal discrimination claims in state court based on a provision in the Illinois Human Rights Act (the “Act”), providing that state courts have no jurisdiction over “civil rights violations” except as the Act provides (i.e., after undergoing investigation and conciliation of a charge by the Illinois Department of Human Rights, or “IDHR,” and review and adjudication by the Illinois Human Rights Commission, or “IHRC”). Because the Act was “intended to prevent direct access to the courts for redress of civil rights violations,” according to these Illinois Appellate decisions, permitting federal claims to be brought directly in state court would improperly subvert this purpose. However, this pro-employer interpretation was rejected in Blount. Employers now need to be aware of the expanded litigation options for an employee pursuing federal discrimination claims.

The Blount Decision

Jerri Blount (African-American), a former employee of Jovon Broadcasting Corporation (“Jovon”), sued Jovon based on the claim that Jovon took various retaliatory actions against her for her support of a Caucasian co-worker's federal discrimination suit against Jovon. Ms. Blount alleged that she witnessed some of the alleged offensive conduct that was the subject of the co-worker's suit and told the Company's owner and general manager (African-American) that she believed the co-worker's claim was legitimate and that she would testify truthfully in support of her. The owner/general manager allegedly instructed Ms. Blount not to testify against him or otherwise aid the co-worker. When Ms. Blount was ultimately terminated, she did not seek recourse through the IDHR and the IHRC, but rather filed a lawsuit in the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois alleging, among other things, retaliation under § 1981 and retaliatory discharge, an Illinois common law tort claim. Ms. Blount's case proceeded to trial and the jury returned a verdict in her favor on her retaliation claims, awarding $257,350 in back pay, 425,000 for pain and suffering, and $2,800,000 as punitive damages.

The Illinois Appellate Court reversed, holding that the Act's jurisdictional limitation provision “deprives Illinois circuit courts of subject matter jurisdiction over all civil rights claims, regardless of whether they are brought under state or federal law.” Because the circuit court lacked jurisdiction to hear Blount's retaliation claims, the appellate court granted Jovon's motion for judgment in its favor.

The Illinois Supreme Court reversed the Illinois Appellate Court, holding that the circuit court had proper jurisdiction over Blount's claims. As for the § 1981 claim, the Court determined that the Act's jurisdictional limitation – that “civil rights violations” cannot be heard in state court except as provided by the Act (requiring adherence to IDHR's and IHRC's administrative procedures) – is inapplicable to federal claims. The Supreme Court reasoned that the Act is addressing only those “civil rights violations” defined by the Act, not claims under federal law. Moreover, because IDHR and IHRC do not have authority to process federal claims, the jurisdictional limitation provision could not possibly be addressing federal claims. Thus, because Illinois circuit courts are courts of “general jurisdiction” and the Act's jurisdictional limit does not apply to federal discrimination claims, the circuit court properly heard Blount's § 1981 claim.

As for Blount's retaliatory discharge claim, the Court determined that it too was properly before the circuit court because there was an independent basis for imposing liability on Jovon that does not depend on the Act. While Blount's claim could be construed as retaliation for opposing unlawful discrimination (a violation under the Act), Blount's claim also could be established independently as a retaliatory discharge claim under Illinois public policy – barring discharge of an employee for her refusal to perjure herself. Accordingly, Blount's retaliatory discharge claim was not “inextricably linked” to the Act and thus did not trigger the Act’s jurisdictional limitation.

The Take-Away

As a general matter, employers need to be aware that employees are not limited to merely filing an administrative charge with IDHR for discrimination-related claims where, as in Blount, the alleged discrimination involves conduct that provides a basis for liability other than the Act. For instance, where an alleged sexual harassment claim involves confining the victim to an area and forcibly touching her or making other physical sexual advances, there may be viable common law claims of assault, battery and/or false imprisonment that provide an independent basis for liability. In such cases, the victim-employee will not be limited to merely filing an IDHR charge (i.e., for sexual harassment under the Act) but can file a lawsuit directly in circuit court with a request for a jury trial based on the common law claims. The stakes in such cases increase dramatically because employers are not dealing with the slow and settlement-oriented IDHR process but rather must now contend with discovery, stricter filing deadlines, and eventually a sympathetic jury that is not limited in the amount it can award for punitive damages.

The Blount decision further raises these stakes. After Blount, an employee may bring employment discrimination claims based on federal law directly in Illinois circuit courts. With § 1981 claims, there is no requirement that the plaintiff first follow any administrative procedures (claims under Title VII, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, however, are all subject to such requirements, whether pursued in state or federal court) and thus, the employee can go directly to state court. While employees always have the alternative of bringing their federal claims in federal court, suing in state court provides them an added advantage. It is more difficult for employers to defeat a discrimination case based on summary judgment in state court. Further, state court juries are usually more sympathetic to employee-plaintiffs and award them more money for damages than their federal counterparts. While employers have the option of “removing” a federal discrimination case from state court to have it decided in federal court, this only adds to the cost of litigating for employers.