Two courts in the Northern District of Illinois recently ruled that the Illinois Whistleblower Act (IWA) (740 ILCS § 174/5) provides for individual liability. Bello v. Village of Skokie, No. 14-cv-1718 (N.D. Ill. Sept. 2, 2014 and Dec. 31, 2015); Hower v. Cook County Sheriff’s Office, No. 15-cv-6404 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 16, 2016).
In Bello, the Plaintiff, a police officer, claimed to have been retaliated against after lodging complaints that a personnel policy violated the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act and the state law counterpart. He filed suit under the IWA against Defendant Village of Skokie and several individuals within the police department and the Village’s administration. The individual defendants moved to dismiss on the grounds that they were not an “employer” as defined under the IWA. Denying the motion dismiss, the court ruled that the IWA expansively defined employer to include individuals “acting on behalf of an entity that one might colloquially understand to be a person’s ‘employer.’” Defendants subsequently moved for summary judgment, arguing that the claims against the individual defendants should be dismissed because the IWA does not impose individual liability. The court rejected this position once again.
In Hower, the Plaintiff, a correctional officer, alleged that he was subjected to false investigations, passed over for promotions and denied special assignments after he complained that the promotional process of his employer, the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, violated the Sheriff’s Employment Action Manual and Illinois statutes. He filed suit against Sheriff’s Office and several individual defendants under the IWA. The individual defendants moved to dismiss, arguing that they were not subject to individual liability under the IWA. Citing to Bello, the court acknowledged that the individual defendants were not the entity that employs the Plaintiff, but ruled that they could nevertheless be liable under the IWA because the “Individual Defendants were acting within the scope of their authority when dealing with [Plaintiff] as an employee.” Accordingly, the court declined to dismiss the IWA claims against the individuals.
These decisions stray from a prior decision, which ruled that the IWA did not provide for individual liability. Hernandez v. Cook County Sheriff’s Office, No. 13-cv-7949 (N.D. Ill. Apr. 3, 2014). Until there is further guidance from the Illinois Supreme Court (or perhaps the Seventh Circuit) regarding the parameters of the IWA with respect to whether it provides for individual liability, Illinois employers and individual supervisors should be mindful of the new, significant risks that these decisions create.