Michael v. Precision Alliance Group, LLC: Proving an Employee's Termination was Caused by Employer's Retaliation
In a retaliatory discharge case, the Illinois Supreme Court recently clarified its position on what a plaintiff must prove to establish that an employee's termination was, in fact, caused by the employer's retaliation for protected activity. See Michael v. Precision Alliance Group, LLC, 2014 IL 117376. This decision reinforces the fact that an employer with a valid, non-pretextual reason for an employee's termination is protected from liability for retaliatory discharge.
Precision Alliance Group, LLC (Precision Alliance) is an agricultural supply business of soybean seeds. The plaintiffs worked at the company's Nashville, Illinois facility where one of their job duties included checking for "proper weights, lot numbers, seed count, and dates." Michael, 2014 IL 117376, ¶ 14. In late 2002, Precision Alliance began experiencing a problem with underweight seed bags. Illinois law on weights and measures is very strict. It requires that any bag that states it contains a certain weight of seeds must actually weigh that amount.
In January 2003, Shawn Dudley, an employee working on the bagging line, was terminated for engaging in horseplay. Specifically, he tampered with a piece of forklift equipment. He subsequently told plaintiff Alan Hohman that if Precision Alliance denied his application for unemployment benefits, he would report the seed bag weight problems to the Illinois Department of Agriculture. Hohman reported this threat to assistant plant manager Matt Alcorn.
When Dudley's application for employment benefits was denied, he enlisted Hohman and plaintiffs Wayne Michael and Craig Kruemke to help him. Hohman, Michael, and Kruemke began weighing bags without Precision Alliance's permission. Each employee found bags to be light and subsequently provided the lot numbers and locations of the underweight bags to Dudley who reported the same information to the Illinois Department of Agriculture.
On February 10 and 11, 2013, the Illinois Department of Agriculture investigated the complaint. The investigation revealed that approximately 50 percent of the bags were light. The Department permitted Precision Alliance to fill the bags to the appropriate weights and ultimately did not issue any fines.
On March 18, 2003, Hohman was terminated following an incident where he admitted he was horsing around with another employee on a forklift. Also, in March 2003, Precision Alliance's corporate office determined that a business slow down necessitated a reduction in force across its 8 holding companies. 22 positions would be eliminated, including 4 at the Nashville facility. Kluemke and Michael were chosen as two of the four dismissals in Nashville. Alcorn stated he chose Kluemke for having a poor attitude and his inability to get along with co-workers, and he chose Michael because of his poor work ethic and frequent breaks.
Plaintiffs Hohman, Kluemke, and Michael brought suit against Precision Alliance for retaliatory discharge claiming that they were terminated for informing the fired employee of the lot number and location of light seed bags. The company claimed they were unaware of Hohman's, Michael's, or Kluemke's involvement in the bag weight complaint until the commencement of the lawsuit. The matter went to trial in Washington County Circuit Court.
"Retaliatory discharge claims are a narrow exception to the general rule that employees are at-will." Id. ¶ 39. To prevail on a claim for retaliatory discharge, the plaintiff must prove by a preponderance of the evidence: (1) the employer discharged the employee, (2) the discharge was in retaliation for the employee's activities and 3) the discharge violates a clear mandate of public policy. Turner v. Memorial Medical Ctr., 233 Ill. 2d 494, 500 (2009). In determining causation, one must examine the employer's motive in discharging the employee. See Clemons v. Mechanical Devices Co., 184 Ill. 2d 328, 336 (1998). In retaliatory discharge cases, the employer is not required to come forward with an explanation for the employee's discharge, although he may choose to do so. Clemons, 184 Ill. 2d at 336. An employer's best interests are served by providing a valid, non-pretextual basis for discharging the employee, because if the trier of fact believes the employer's reason, then the plaintiff has failed to prove the causation element. Id.
The first and third elements of the retaliation discharge claim were decided in favor of the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs were terminated, and there was sufficient circumstantial evidence to conclude that they had engaged in protected behavior by helping report underweight seed bags to the Illinois Department of Agriculture.
The ultimate issue was whether plaintiffs had proven causation. The judge, sitting as the trier of fact, found that the reasons Precision Alliance gave for the terminations of Hohman, Kruemke, and Michael were valid and legitimate. Stated differently, the judge believed that the explanations for the plaintiffs' terminations were valid, non-pretextual bases for their termination. The circuit court ruled that plaintiffs failed to meet their burden to prove they were discharged in retaliation for their role in reporting underweight seed bags. The circuit court entered judgment in favor of Precision Alliance. The Illinois Supreme Court affirmed the circuit court's decision.
This case clarifies that an employer may completely defeat a claim for retaliatory discharge if it gives a legitimate, non-pretextual reason for an employee's termination. If the trier of fact believes that reason is true and valid, the plaintiff has not and cannot prove the element of causation.