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Palmateer v. International Harvester Co.





APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Rock Island County; the Hon. DAN H. McNEAL, Judge, presiding.


This is an appeal from an order of the circuit court of Rock Island County, Illinois, dismissing plaintiff's complaint with prejudice.

On February 16, 1978, plaintiff, Ray Palmateer, filed suit against his former employer, International Harvester, alleging the following facts. Palmateer began working for International Harvester in East Moline, Illinois, in 1962. In 1966, at International Harvester's request, Palmateer left the union for a nonunion training position. In 1968, he assumed a position in management, foregoing all union contract benefits, in reliance upon International Harvester's promises to pay him a salary and provide various benefits. Palmateer continued to work for International Harvester, expecting to do so until he retired. In 1977, International Harvester discharged Palmateer, stating as reasons for the discharge that (1) Palmateer had given to a law enforcement agency evidence that an employee of International Harvester might be involved in a violation of the Criminal Code of the State of Illinois; (2) Palmateer agreed to assist the law enforcement agency in gathering further evidence; and (3) Palmateer intended to testify against the said employee in a court of law should he be requested to do so. On the basis of the alleged facts, Palmateer requested compensatory and punitive damages for breach of contract, wrongful discharge, violation of constitutional and civil rights, and intentional infliction of severe emotional distress.

International Harvester filed a motion to dismiss, which was granted. In a written opinion on his ruling, the trial judge held that International Harvester and Palmateer had an employment contract at will which was subject to termination by either party with or without cause at any time without liability. The trial judge also dismissed the complaint for emotional distress. The trial judge found that both the Illinois Supreme Court and the Third District Appellate Court had refused to sustain a complaint for emotional distress and stated that any change in this law should be announced by a court of review rather than a lower court. On June 5, 1978, judgment was entered for International Harvester and against Palmateer on all counts.

On appeal Palmateer raises two issues:

1. Whether the complaint filed by him states a valid cause of action for wrongful discharge by an employer of an employee, and

2. Whether the trial court erred in dismissing the cause of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

• 1 Ordinarily an employment contract is terminable at any time, with or without cause, by either party, unless the contract itself specifies a duration. (Atwood v. Curtiss Candy Co. (1959), 22 Ill. App.2d 369, 161 N.E.2d 355; Leach v. Lauhoff Grain Co. (1977), 51 Ill. App.3d 1022, 366 N.E.2d 1145; Kelsay v. Motorola, Inc. (1978), 74 Ill.2d 172, 384 N.E.2d 353.) Even though salary or other terms are calculated on a monthly or annual basis, the contract does not automatically have a monthly or annual duration. (Atwood.) The duration must be specifically stated.

• 2 Palmateer attached a copy of a retirement benefits pamphlet to his complaint. He argues that because International Harvester agreed to provide certain retirement benefits to him, they impliedly agreed to employ him until his retirement. This is not sufficient. This is a contract which cannot be performed within one year and therefore is unenforceable under the statute of frauds, which requires a writing signed by the party to be charged or his thereunto lawfully authorized agent. (Sinclair v. Sullivan Chevrolet Co. (1964), 31 Ill.2d 507, 202 N.E.2d 516.) There is no such writing here. Therefore, even if there were an implied contract to employ Palmateer until he retired, it would be unenforceable. Thus, in the absence of a contract specifying a duration, the parties had an employment contract at will.

Historically, an employment contract at will meant that the contract could be terminated at any time, with or without cause, by employer or employee. However, since society has become more industrialized and we have all become more dependent upon each other for our livelihood, the tort of wrongful discharge has developed.

• 3 In Illinois, an employer is liable when he terminates a contract at will if that termination violates a contract provision, a statute, or public policy. The majority of Illinois cases which have granted damages for breach of contract contrary to public policy have involved a firing because the employee filed a workman's compensation claim. (Kelsay v. Motorola, Inc. (1978), 74 Ill.2d 172, 384 N.E.2d 353; Leach v. Lauhoff Grain Co. (1977), 51 Ill. App.3d 1022, 366 N.E.2d 1145.) Our research shows no Illinois case in which an employee has been fired because he provided information to the police, agreed to gather more information against a fellow employee and agreed to testify if requested to do so. We have been reluctant to expand any tort unless we have been given cogent reasons for the expansion. We do not believe that such reasons exist here.

Palmateer has also charged International Harvester with intentional infliction of emotional distress. He has alleged that the attempt to force him to resign and his subsequent firing a day later caused him to suffer severe emotional distress, "in that the Plaintiff, by virtue of said acts and conduct, was intimidated, harrassed, humiliated, shamed and disgraced, suffering great mental and physical anguish, sleeplessness, nervousness, weight loss, depression and anxiety, thereby endangering his health and well-being."

The elements of the tort of intentional infliction of ...

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