Illinois Federal Court Grants Summary Judgment on Whistleblower Retaliation Claims
On September 27, 2019, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois granted a defendant-employer summary judgment on a whistleblower retaliation claim under the Illinois Whistleblower Act (“IWA”) and on a common law retaliatory discharge claim, holding that Plaintiff failed to establish that he suffered an adverse employment action under the IWA and that the retaliatory discharge claim failed as a matter of law because he could not show that his employment was terminated. Arias v. Citgo Petroleum Corp., Case No. 17-cv-08897 (Wood, J.)
Plaintiff worked as a Safety Coordinator for Citgo Petroleum Corporation (“Citgo”) at its refinery in Lemont, Illinois. In 2011, Plaintiff alleged he became aware that Citgo was operating a Fluid Catalytic Cracking (“FCC”) unit with several reactor leaks, which periodically suffered emergency shutdowns due to the leaks. He allegedly informed a government investigator of his safety concerns and asserted that he reasonably believed Citgo’s alleged failure to properly repair the FCC unit was a violation of certain OSHA standards. Plaintiff also allegedly was temporarily re-assigned to a night shift position and issued a written warning for certain alleged policy violations following his report to the investigator. Plaintiff allegedly resigned from his employment to avoid discipline for alleged misconduct at a company event and filed suit, asserting a claim under the IWA and a claim of common law retaliatory discharge.
The court granted summary judgment in Citgo’s favor. First, the court concluded that Plaintiff’s IWA retaliation claim failed as a matter of law because Plaintiff could not establish that he suffered an adverse employment action. According to the court, Plaintiff failed to proffer admissible evidence to suggest temporary re-assignment to the night shift was punitive in nature, particularly because approximately half of its employees had been assigned to the night shift at that time due to business needs. The court also ruled that the mere issuance of a warning letter for Plaintiff’s alleged policy violations was not the kind of materially adverse employment actions that a plaintiff is required to show to sustain an IWA retaliation claim.
Second, the Court held that Plaintiff’s common law retaliatory discharge claim failed as a matter of law because it was undisputed that Plaintiff had resigned from his employment with Citgo and the Illinois common law tort of retaliatory discharge requires a plaintiff to show that he or she was actually discharged by the employer.
This decision is a valuable win for employers faced with IWA and common law whistleblower retaliation claims that are vulnerable to summary judgement on grounds that the employee did not suffer an adverse employment action.