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Ryherd v. General Cable Co.

OPINION FILED NOVEMBER 12, 1986.

CONNIE RYHERD, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,

v.

GENERAL CABLE COMPANY, DEFENDANT-APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Piatt County; the Hon. John P. Shonkwiler, Judge, presiding.

JUSTICE MORTHLAND DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

Plaintiff filed suit claiming she was terminated from her job for exercising her rights under the Workers' Compensation Act (Act) (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 48, par. 138.1 et seq.). Her action followed an adverse decision entered by an arbitrator upon full exhaustion of the grievance procedures provided for in the collective-bargaining agreement in effect between plaintiff's former employer and her union. The circuit court of Piatt County held that the plaintiff's retaliatory-discharge tort action was preempted by Federal labor law and granted the defendant's motion for summary judgment. Plaintiff appeals, and for the reasons stated below, we affirm.

The plaintiff, Connie Ryherd, was hired by the defendant as an hourly employee on August 16, 1978. Throughout her employment with the defendant, plaintiff was a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local No. 1993 (union). As such, the terms of the plaintiff's employment, and her relationship with her employer, were governed by a collective-bargaining agreement in effect between the defendant and the union. That agreement essentially recognized the exclusive right of the defendant to manage its plant and direct the working force except as limited by the specific terms of the contract. The agreement also set up a four-step grievance procedure for union employees who had been disciplined or discharged. The final step in any dispute, according to the agreement, was "final and binding" arbitration.

On March 5, 1981, plaintiff suffered a work-related injury, and did not return to work until February 24, 1983. In the interim, plaintiff received a lump-sum workers' compensation settlement totaling $40,210. Plaintiff also took a medical leave of absence beginning in April of 1983 and was released to go back to work in January of 1984.

However, plaintiff's employment with the defendant was terminated on February 2, 1984. The official reasons given for her termination were "a lack of desire and physical inability to function as a full-time employee." On February 6, 1984, plaintiff filed a grievance through her union under the collective-bargaining agreement alleging she had been discharged in part due to time missed with work-related injuries and in part because she had filed a claim for workers' compensation.

Plaintiff's grievance was ultimately submitted to final and binding arbitration at a hearing held August 17, 1984. From the facts and evidence adduced at the arbitration hearing, we may summarize the plaintiff's term of employment as follows: on December 15, 1979, elected to take layoff; recalled to work on February 11, 1980; elected to take layoff on May 5, 1980; recalled to work on February 22, 1981; suffered work-related injury on March 5, 1981; returned to work on February 24, 1983, or almost two years after suffering original work-related injury; took medical leave of absence from February 28, 1983, to March 29, 1983, due to allergic reaction; on March 19, 1983, while on medical leave, was involved in car accident and suffered neck or whiplash injury; returned to work on March 29, 1983; took several sick days during the first two weeks of April 1983; on April 13, 1983, took another medical leave of absence due to muscle strain as aggravation of previous whiplash injury; apparently released to go back to work in January of 1984; employment with defendant terminated on February 2, 1984, due to excessive absenteeism, allegedly excluding work-related leaves of absence, with the company also complaining that the plaintiff exhibited neither a physical ability nor a desire to continue on as a full-time employee.

On November 2, 1984, the arbitrator rendered his decision denying the plaintiff's grievance and claim for reinstatement. The arbitrator concluded that plaintiff was discharged "solely and wholly because of her absenteeism record" and that the defendant's action in terminating her employment was proper.

Plaintiff thereafter filed a three-count complaint against the defendant on April 2, 1984. Counts II and III were later dismissed upon motion of the plaintiff. Count I sounded in retaliatory discharge, alleging the plaintiff had been terminated for filing a workers' compensation claim and subsequently obtaining a lump-sum settlement. On October 25, 1985, the defendant filed a motion for summary judgment asserting that the plaintiff's State tort action was preempted by section 301 of the Labor-Management Relations Act (LMRA) (29 U.S.C. sec. 185(a) (1982)).

By its memorandum of opinion dated January 17, 1986, the circuit court of Piatt County agreed with the defendant and granted the motion for summary judgment. Relying on the United States Supreme Court's decision in Allis-Chalmers Corp. v. Lueck (1985), 471 U.S. 202, 213, 85 L.Ed.2d 206, 216, 105 S.Ct. 1904, 1912, the court ruled that the State tort action for retaliatory discharge was "inextricably intertwined with consideration of the terms of the labor contract." Accordingly, under the holding in Allis-Chalmers, the court found that the complaint was preempted by Federal labor law.

In the appeal of this matter, we consider the precise issue to be whether a State tort action for retaliatory discharge brought by a union employee with a collective-bargaining agreement in effect is governed by section 301 of the LMRA, where the employee alleges she was fired for exercising her rights under the Workers' Compensation Act and where the employee has submitted to the full range of grievance and arbitration procedures available under the agreement. Plaintiff claims her authority to maintain this action is grounded in section 4(h) of the Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 48, par. 138.4(h)), which makes it unlawful for any employer to interfere with or discriminate against an employee who exercises her right to remedies under the Act. Plaintiff further believes arbitration is an inappropriate forum in which to decide matters of public policy raised by her lawsuit.

In light of the arguments raised, we deem it provident initially to embark upon a review of the retaliatory-discharge tort as it has evolved in Illinois. The tort was first recognized in Kelsay v. Motorola, Inc. (1978), 74 Ill.2d 172, 384 N.E.2d 353, where an at-will employee was allegedly discharged in retaliation for filing a claim under the Workers' Compensation Act. The court in Kelsay considered that the Act was passed in furtherance of a clearly mandated public policy: to afford protection to employees by providing them with a comprehensive scheme for prompt and equitable compensation of their injuries. In order to uphold the public policy that injured workers be allowed to freely file workers' compensation claims, the court reasoned that a cause of action for retaliatory discharge must be granted. Specifically, the Kelsay court believed this policy could only be effectively enforced by allowing a civil remedy for damages distinct from the possibility of criminal sanctions under section 4(h) of the Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 48, par. 138.4(h)). In addition, the court specifically held that a claim for punitive damages should arise where a discharge violates public policy:

"The imposition on the employer of the small additional obligation to pay a wrongfully discharged employee compensation would do little to discourage the practice of retaliatory discharge, which mocks the public policy of this State as announced in the Workmen's Compensation Act. In the absence of other effective means of deterrence, punitive damages must be permitted to prevent the discharging of employees for filing workmen's compensation claims." 74 Ill.2d 172, 187, 384 N.E.2d 353, 359.

The tort was later extended by the court, again on public policy grounds, in Palmateer v. International Harvester Co. (1981), 85 Ill.2d 124, 421 N.E.2d 876. In that case, an at-will employee was allegedly discharged for supplying information to law-enforcement authorities regarding possible criminal conduct by co-workers. The court in Palmateer stressed that the tort of retaliatory discharge remains an exception to the general common law rule that an employer may discharge an at-will employee at any time for any cause or for no cause. (85 Ill.2d 124, 128, 421 N.E.2d 876, 878; see also Barr v. Kelso-Burnett Co. (1985), 106 Ill.2d 520, 525, 478 N.E.2d 1354, 1357.) Moreover, the Palmateer court reiterated that "[t]he foundation of the tort of retaliatory discharge lies in the protection of public policy." (Palmateer v. International Harvester Co. (1981), 85 Ill.2d 124, 133, 421 N.E.2d 876, 880.) The court then went on to hold that a cause of action for retaliatory discharge was necessary in this instance to promote citizen crime-fighters and to ensure that the public policy behind enforcement of the Criminal Code of 1961 would not be frustrated. Specifically, in commenting on what is necessary to state a cause of action for retaliatory discharge, the court announced:

"All that is required is that the employer discharge the employee in retaliation for the employee's activities, and that the discharge be in contravention of a clearly mandated public policy." 85 Ill.2d 124, 134, 421 N.E.2d 876, 881.

Still, up to this point, our supreme court had determined that the cause of action existed only in situations involving at-will employees. The several appellate courts which had considered whether the tort was also available to unionized employees covered by collective-bargaining agreements were in disagreement. (Compare, e.g., Cook v. Caterpillar Tractor Co. (1980), 85 Ill. App.3d 402, 407 N.E.2d 95, with Wyatt v. Jewel Cos. (1982), 108 Ill. App.3d 840, 439 N.E.2d 1053.) Moreover, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has refused to extend the tort to a union employee. Lamb v. Briggs Manufacturing (7th Cir. 1983), 700 F.2d 1092.

In this context the supreme court decided to resolve the question under the facts in three consolidated cases in Midgett v. Sackett-Chicago, Inc. (1984), 105 Ill.2d 143, 473 N.E.2d 1280. Several union employees filed suit in Midgett alleging they had been discharged in retaliation for filing workers' compensation claims. In each instance, the plaintiffs had resorted first to recovery in tort without ...


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