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Retaliatory Discharge in Illinois: The Basics

Web Admin - Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Under the “at will” employment doctrine, employers are typically able to fire an employee for virtually any reason. There are some exceptions, however, including statutory rules which prevent employment discrimination against certain protected classes. Another exception is known as a “retaliatory discharge.”

What It Is

Essentially, the law, as outlined by the Illinois Supreme Court, allows an employee to recover damages if they show that they were fired from a job for engaging in legally protected conduct and that their termination violated public policy interests. A 1978 Supreme Court case, Kelsay v. Motorola, Inc. was the first in the state to define this tort.

Historically, there are two general types of situations where employees have won retaliatory discharge cases. The first is where an employee was fired for making a worker’s compensation claim.  To prevail in these situations, the burden is on the employee to affirmatively show that the termination was spurred by their seeking worker’s compensation.

In addition, employers can be liable for a retaliatory discharge when they fire an employee for reporting on improper conduct or refusing to participate in that conduct. For example, in one Illinois case, Palmateer v. International Harvester, an employee was fired after going to the police to share information about a fellow employee’s illegal actions. In another case decided by an Illinois appellate court, an employee won a claim after being fired for refusing to falsify pension plans--which itself violated federal law.

Retaliatory Discharge Damages

To pursue one of these cases, an employee must file a civil lawsuit specifically alleging that they were terminated in violation of these rules. But what sort of damages can the employee recover if they win?

Under Illinois case law, employees who win a retaliatory discharge case are generally able to recover lost wages from the date that the termination occurred until they find a new job. However, that does not mean that the employee can simply do nothing and collect a paycheck. Instead, courts have ruled that the employee has a duty to mitigate their damages by taking reasonable steps to find permanent work.

In addition, depending on the specifics of the case, a plaintiff may also seek punitive damages. Punitive damages are intended to punish the conduct of the employer (instead of merely compensating the harmed party). These damages are only a possibility when the defendant’s conduct is particularly egregious. 

Legal Help

If you have questions about a potential retaliatory discharge case, contact a Palatine employment lawyer today. Call 847-934-6000 to speak to a member of our team. We serve many Northwest Suburban areas including Rolling Meadows, Buffalo Grove, Barrington, and other nearby communities.


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