Adding to the list of potential claims against Illinois employers, a federal trial court in Chicago recently held that an employee of Abbott Labs could go to trial against the company based on his alleged reporting of a subordinate's threatening workplace violence. Chief Judge Holderman determined that reports of workplace violence implicate the "clearly mandated public policy" in Illinois of protecting workers against physically threatening behavior.
Jeffrey Daoust was Maintenance Group Leader for Abbott Labs, and received numerous positive performance reviews and promotions during his ten-plus years with the company. In March 2005, a subordinate entered his office and allegedly began yelling in a "threatening and intimidating" manner regarding certain work rules. After the subordinate refused to leave, Daoust "respectfully removed" him by moving him "two steps out of the office area." Abbott conducted an investigation, and eventually terminated Daoust for violating the company's anti-harassment policy.
Daoust sued in federal court, claiming that his termination violated a "clearly mandated public policy" in Illinois. Abbott responded by filing several motions to dismiss the case, arguing that the alleged incident did not fall within any of the previously enumerated grounds for a public policy exception to employment-at-will, and argued further that this case did not merit an expansion of the tort. In the past, Illinois courts had narrowly limited public policy retaliation cases to such matters as terminations for reporting of a crime or for exercising a statutory right, such as filing a workers' compensation claim. The Illinois "at-will" doctrine holds that an employer may generally terminate an employee at any time with or without cause.
Chief Judge Holderman rejected Abbott's arguments and set the case for trial. Examining Illinois law, he determined that there was a clearly mandated public policy in the state discouraging workplace violence and encouraging the reporting of violent incidents. He pointed to provisions in the Illinois constitution referring to the "health, safety and welfare" of its citizens and to recent laws enacted by the Illinois legislature, such as the Health Care Workplace Violence Prevention Act and the Victims' Economic Security and Safety Act, which address the affects of violence in the workplace. Judge Holderman also determined that allowing this case to proceed was consistent with past decisions, which recognized public policy torts based on public policy concerns involving health and safety issues as opposed to mere economic or property ones.
Although the ultimate outcome of this case remains uncertain—for example, Abbott could still win at trial or on appeal—Illinois employers must act carefully in regard to any workplace violence investigations. Employers must carefully document their reasons for taking any adverse employment action, and, as is often the case in harassment and discrimination cases, watch for possible bases for retaliation, and not simply focus on the underlying adverse employment decision itself.