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Heeren Co. v. Human Rights Com.





Appeal from the Circuit Court of Peoria County; the Hon. Robert E. Manning, Judge, presiding.


Rehearing denied January 14, 1987.

Heeren Company (Heeren) appeals from an order of the circuit court of Peoria County affirming a decision of the Illinois Human Rights Commission (HRC) in favor of Mary Malley, a former Heeren employee who was fired after she filed a complaint alleging Heeren violated her civil rights. On appeal Heeren's primary contentions are: (1) that the HRC erroneously determined that Malley was a victim of retaliatory discharge; and (2) that any obligation Heeren had to pay Malley's back wages and attorney fees was tolled when Malley rejected its offer of reinstatement with full back pay, seniority, and training opportunities. We reverse.

Malley was hired by Heeren in 1978 and was the sole full-time employee in the Peoria office, as Heeren's main office is located in Moline. On March 26, 1981, Malley filed a charge with the Department of Human Rights (Department) and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging age and sex discrimination. She claimed she was denied training and promotion opportunities which were made available to a younger man. Heeren received notice of the discrimination charge on April 3, 1981. On April 10, 1981, Malley was notified by Heeren's president, Randy Koser, that she was discharged effective April 30, 1981. Malley testified that when she asked why she was being terminated, Koser stated that she was being fired for the letter she sent to Chicago. The only letter Malley sent to Chicago during this period was the discrimination charge submitted to the Department through her attorney. After Malley informed her husband of her termination later that day, he called the Peoria office to speak with Koser, who, according to Malley's husband, again stated that she was fired because of a derogatory letter that was sent to Heeren. Heeren's representative, Richard Dailing, testified that the decision to terminate Malley was made prior to the time Heeren received notice of the discrimination charge and was based on her deficient job performance. He claimed Malley did not cooperate with the home office, failed to follow certain office procedures, and exceeded her scope of authority. Most of these alleged deficiencies were raised for the first time at the administrative hearing and were not corroborated by the presence of memos or warnings in Malley's personnel file.

Deborah Crockett, an investigator from the Department assigned to Malley's case, recommended to Heeren that it offer to reinstate Malley to her former position with back pay and seniority. Based on this recommendation, Heeren submitted a settlement offer to Malley through Crockett on May 29, 1981. The terms of the offer included the following: reinstatement at her former salary with full back pay, provided Malley returned any funds received from the unemployment office; the opportunity to participate in Heeren's management-training program on the same conditions as all other program participants, with Heeren paying all travel expenses to the classes in Moline; and eligibility for promotion to any available management position upon successful completion of the training program. Finally, the terms of Heeren's offer required Malley to release all claims against Heeren arising out of matters charged in the complaint and as a result of her discharge.

Crockett, who recommended at least some of the terms of offer, voiced no objections to any of Heeren's terms and requested no modification of the offer before submitting it to Malley.

Malley refused to accept the offer. She did not complain about the offer of back pay, seniority, or training and promotion opportunities. She sought no additional terms from Heeren. However, Malley apparently desired a salary increase which Heeren was unwilling to pay. No further negotiations among the parties took place after Malley rejected Heeren's offer. Malley has been unemployed since April 30, 1981.

Several months after Malley refused the offer, the Department dismissed her charge of age and sex discrimination, finding it was not supported by substantial evidence.

On June 10, 1981, Malley filed a second charge with the Department of Human Rights, this time alleging Heeren discharged her in retaliation for filing the original age- and sex-discrimination charge. Although the Department was required to serve the respondent with a copy of the charge within 10 days of the date on which the charge was filed (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1981, ch. 68, par. 7-102(B)), Heeren did not receive notice of this charge until April 8, 1982. The retaliatory-discharge complaint requested that Heeren be ordered to reinstate Malley to her former position with back pay and seniority and pay her court costs and attorney fees. In its complaint, the Department also requested a cease and desist order to prevent Heeren from retaliating against persons who reasonably oppose what they believe to be unlawful discrimination.

On September 22, 1982, a hearing on the retaliatory-discharge complaint was held before Judge Gerl, an administrative law judge (ALJ) appointed by the HRC. In his interim recommended order of April 21, 1983, the ALJ determined that Malley was terminated in retaliation for filing her charge of discrimination and recommended all the relief sought by the Department. After the ALJ entered his recommended order and decision, Heeren filed a request to present additional evidence, the testimony of Heeren's two main officers who had not attended the hearing. The HRC panel which reviewed the recommended order determined that Heeren's officers were aware of the importance of the administrative hearing, but chose to attend to some other business activity at that time, so justice did not require giving them another opportunity to testify. On January 12, 1984, the panel unanimously affirmed the ALJ's order and decision in Malley's favor. Heeren was ordered to reinstate Malley with back wages and seniority statutes, to cease and desist from retaliating against those who reasonably oppose what they believe to be unlawful discrimination, and to pay approximately $7,000 in attorney fees and costs, all of which Malley incurred after she rejected Heeren's offer.

Heeren subsequently petitioned for rehearing before the entire Human Rights Commission, but the HRC determined that the matter was not appropriate for rehearing. Following a hearing on Heeren's complaint for administrative review, the trial court affirmed the decision of the Human Rights Commission. This appeal followed.

Several issues were raised on appeal. First, Heeren argues that the HRC incorrectly determined that the nondiscriminatory reasons it gave for dismissing Malley were a pretext for discrimination and that Malley was fired in retaliation for filing a civil rights violation charge. We disagree.

• 1, 2 A reviewing court should not overturn a decision of the HRC unless that decision is contrary to the manifest weight of the evidence. (K mart Corp. v. Human Rights Com. (1984), 129 Ill. App.3d 842.) When a complainant makes out a prima facie case of discrimination and the employer articulates a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for its action, the burden is then on the complainant to prove that the employer intentionally discriminated against the complainant. Burnham City Hospital v. Human Rights Com. (1984), 126 Ill. App.3d 999.

Malley filed a charge with the Department of Human Rights on March 26, 1981, and was discharged just one week after Heeren received notice of the charge. The extremely short period of time that elapsed between the filing of the charge and Malley's termination, when considered with the Malleys' testimony about conversations with the president of Heeren regarding his reasons for firing Malley, established a prima facie case ...

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