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Witkowski v. St. Anne's Hospital

OPINION FILED MARCH 31, 1983.

MARY ANNE WITKOWSKI, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,

v.

ST. ANNE'S HOSPITAL OF CHICAGO, INC., DEFENDANT-APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. Myron Gomberg, Judge, presiding.

JUSTICE JIGANTI DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

The plaintiff, Mary Anne Witkowski, was employed by the defendant, St. Anne's Hospital of Chicago, until she was discharged from her position as the hospital's chief physical therapist in 1976. Following her discharge, the plaintiff filed her three count complaint in the circuit court of Cook County, alleging that she had been wrongfully discharged from her employment by the defendant and was entitled to relief under both contract and retaliatory discharge causes of action; that the defendant had improperly withheld accumulated vacation pay to which she was entitled and that the defendant intentionally caused her to suffer emotional distress. The circuit court granted the defendant's motion for summary judgment and dismissed all three counts of the plaintiff's complaint. The plaintiff now appeals that dismissal to this court and again raises the same three issues that were presented below, contending that she has raised sufficient genuine issues of material facts to have withstood the defendant's motion for summary judgment on all three counts.

The plaintiff first asks this court to determine whether she was wrongfully discharged from her employment by the defendant. In essence, the plaintiff contends that she was discharged because she became eligible to collect long-term disability benefits from the hospital. In contrast, the defendant argues that the plaintiff was fired because she abandoned her job without giving prior notice to anyone in the hospital administration. The evidence adduced in the motion for summary judgment was that the plaintiff worked at the defendant hospital for approximately 24 years during the time period between 1945 and 1976. At different times, the plaintiff performed as a registered physical therapist, as a registered nurse and as the hospital's chief physical therapist. She held the last position continuously from 1964 until she was fired in 1976. As chief physical therapist, the plaintiff administered physical therapy and supervised other employees in the physical therapy department. At no time during the plaintiff's employment history with the defendant did she enter into a written employment contract.

The events leading up to this lawsuit revolve around an arthritic condition from which the plaintiff began to suffer in 1970. Between 1970 and 1976, the plaintiff was treated for her arthritis by Dr. Theodore Lescher, a member of the staff of the defendant hospital. Early in 1976, the plaintiff's condition apparently became severe. On February 23, 1976, she made arrangements for preadmission into the defendant hospital. On February 24, 1976, the plaintiff performed her job at the hospital until sometime in the afternoon when she was admitted into the hospital as a patient. Although the plaintiff was familiar with a hospital policy that required hospital employees to notify their superiors in advance before absenting themselves from their jobs, she did not notify either her supervisor or anyone else in the hospital administration prior to the time she left her job and was admitted as a patient.

The plaintiff remained hospitalized for approximately one week while she received treatment for arthritis and underwent an operation to remove ingrown toenails. The day after the plaintiff's admittance into the hospital, she was visited in her hospital room by her supervisor, Sister Leonoris. Leonoris testified that she stated that the plaintiff had exhibited unprofessional conduct by abandoning her job without prior notice and had thereby "terminated herself." Leonoris further questioned the plaintiff regarding the seriousness of her actual physical condition and later called Dr. Lescher into her office to question him regarding the plaintiff's condition. Later that same day, Leonoris testified that she met with Antonio Maienza, the hospital administrator, and that they jointly reached a decision to discharge the plaintiff. However, the plaintiff was not given notice of their alleged decision at this time.

The plaintiff's condition did not improve following her release from the hospital and she remained confined to her home. Dr. Lescher prepared a medical certificate that was submitted to the defendant on approximately March 26, 1976, which stated that the plaintiff continued to suffer pain and would be absent from work indefinitely. Subsequently, Maienza sent a letter to the plaintiff on May 7, 1976, notifying her that her employment had been terminated effective April 24, 1976. The letter gave no reason for the plaintiff's discharge. Upon receiving the letter, the plaintiff telephoned Maienza, and she later testified that he again gave her no explanation for her discharge during the course of the telephone conversation. However, Maienza testified that he told the plaintiff that she was fired because of her "unprofessional behavior" in leaving her patients unattended on the day she was admitted into the hospital. Maienza mailed yet another letter to the plaintiff on May 14, 1976, stating that the plaintiff's "unprofessional behavior" in leaving her job without prior notice and in leaving her patients unattended was the cause of her discharge.

The defendant hospital furnishes a long-term disability plan which provides benefits to hospital employees in the event that they suffer from a total disability. A person is defined as being totally disabled if he is unable to perform all of the duties of his regular job. The plan provides for benefits up to 50% of an employee's monthly salary in the event that he becomes totally disabled. Importantly, once an employee is discharged from or resigns from his position with the hospital, his eligibility under the long-term disability plan ceases. An employee is allowed 90 days to file a claim after becoming disabled. The plaintiff in the instant case has never filed a claim for long-term disability benefits with the defendant hospital or otherwise pursued any claim procedures under the plan.

The plaintiff has attempted to set forth two different causes of action relating to her alleged wrongful discharge. First, she contends that she has stated a cause of action in contract by alleging that the defendant's actions in discharging her breached an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing that was present in her at-will employment relationship with the defendant. Second, the plaintiff argues that she has raised a cause of action in tort for retaliatory discharge as a matter of law because the defendant's actions in discharging her contravened an important State "public policy" concern, namely, the protection of employee benefit plans. (See Palmateer v. International Harvester Co. (1981), 85 Ill.2d 124, 421 N.E.2d 876.) In addition, the plaintiff contends that she has established sufficient genuine issues of material facts to support her causes of action and that therefore, it was improper for the trial court to enter summary judgment in favor of the defendant.

In response, the defendant argues that the plaintiff has failed to state a cause of action in either contract or tort. Alternately, the defendant contends that even if we recognize the plaintiff's arguments to be viable causes of action, there were no genuine issues of material fact regarding the reasons for the plaintiff's discharge.

Preliminarily, however, the defendant contends that the Federal law expressed in the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) (29 U.S.C. § 1001 et seq. (1976)) has preempted the plaintiff's wrongful discharge claims and that consequently, her claims may only be brought in the United States District Court. In order to consider the defendant's contention, we must first determine whether in fact the State law is preempted by the Federal law and secondly, even if it is so preempted, whether the State court is preempted by the Federal court.

We believe that the wrongful discharge claims advanced by the plaintiff necessarily fall under the provisions of ERISA. The plaintiff's complaint states in pertinent part:

"9. The Defendant's action, of on or about May 7, 1976 in terminating Plaintiff without any reasonable cause or justification therefore, was done solely to prevent Plaintiff from participating under the LTD [long term disability] plan to which she was entitled as part of her employment."

The plaintiff's allegation closely tracks the language of section 510 of ERISA which forbids an employer from discharging an employee because of his eligibility to receive benefits under an employee benefit plan:

"It shall be unlawful for any person to discharge, fine, suspend, expel, discipline, or discriminate against a participant or beneficiary for exercising any right to which he is entitled under the provisions of an employee benefit plan * * * or for the purpose of interfering with the attainment of any right to which such participant may ...


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