Purported Whistleblower Barred from Pursuing Illinois Retaliatory Discharge Claim
The Northern District of Illinois recently dismissed an Indiana-based employee’s claims for retaliatory discharge in violation of common law, focusing on the nature of the connection (or lack thereof) to Illinois and noting that the plaintiff already had adequate statutory remedies under federal whistleblower laws. O’Risky v. Mead Johnson Nutrition Co., No. 17-cv-1046 (N.D. Ill. Aug. 8, 2017).
Background. Plaintiff worked for the Company since 1990, most recently in the position of Director of Global Product Compliance. She worked primarily at the Company’s Evansville, Indiana facility, and spent 10-15% of her time at the Company’s headquarters in Glenview, Illinois. She allegedly raised concerns about food safety issues related to the Company’s manufacture of infant formula through an anonymous internal complaint. An internal investigation ensued. After the investigation concluded, Plaintiff’s employment was terminated, allegedly in connection with a reduction-in-force. Claiming that the termination constituted retaliation for her complaint, she filed suit in the Northern District of Illinois, asserting a common law claim for retaliatory discharge in violation of Illinois public policy and violations of the whistleblower protection provisions in Dodd-Frank and SOX. Defendant moved to dismiss the complaint pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6).
Ruling. The court granted the Company’s motion to dismiss the common law retaliatory discharge claim and stayed its consideration of the Dodd-Frank and SOX claims pending the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Somers v. Digital Realty Trust, Inc. (discussed here). With respect to the retaliatory discharge claim, the court rejected Plaintiff’s request to apply Illinois law, as it concluded that Indiana (and not Illinois) had the most significant relationship to the Plaintiff and her alleged injuries. And because Indiana law does not recognize a common law claim for whistleblower retaliation (unlike Illinois law), the court dismissed the claim. Perhaps more significantly (albeit in a footnote), the court went on to note that the retaliatory discharge claim would have failed even under Illinois law, because she had adequate statutory remedies—i.e., the federal whistleblower statutes.
Implications. This decision underscores the basic rule that a common law retaliatory discharge claim based on whistleblowing activity is not actionable under Illinois law given the existence of available remedies under federal whistleblower statutes. This is especially valuable to employers given the risk of punitive damages attendant to common law retaliatory discharge claims.