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01/28/87 Kenall Manufacturing v. the Human Rights

January 28, 1987





504 N.E.2d 805, 152 Ill. App. 3d 695, 105 Ill. Dec. 520 1987.IL.70

Petition for review of order of Human Rights Commission.


PRESIDING JUSTICE McNAMARA delivered the opinion of the court. WHITE and FREEMAN, JJ., concur.


Petitioner, Kenall Manufacturing Company, appeals directly to this court from a decision of the Illinois Human Rights Commission (Commission) which held that Kenall discriminated against its employee, respondent Frank May, on the basis of his handicap. On appeal, Kenall contends that the Commission erred as a matter of law in finding that May was handicapped, that there was insufficient evidence to support the Commission's Conclusions, that the Commission's decision was procedurally improper, that the Commission failed to provide Kenall with a meaningful opportunity to be heard on remand, and that the Commission erred in awarding attorney fees to May.

At a hearing before a Commission hearing officer, the parties stipulated that May began working at Kenall in August 1965 and that on January 30, 1980, he suffered a heart attack and began disability leave on February 1, 1980, at which time he was an assembly-line foreman. On August 1, 1980, May returned to work with a doctor's release, and he was terminated that same day. May subsequently filed a charge with the Department of Human Rights, which later filed a complaint of civil rights violation against Kenall under the Illinois Human Rights Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1985, ch. 68, par. 2-102).

At the hearing, James Hawkins, Kenall's vice-president, testified that May had received a salary increase and bonus in January 1980, two weeks prior to May's heart attack. Hawkins believed the bonus and raise were justified. Kenall had never received any complaints about May. Following the heart attack, May became the first employee to participate in Kenall's new disability plan.

In March 1980, Hawkins met with George Milatz, the production manager and May's supervisor, and Dennis Gackowski, the materials control manager, and it was tentatively decided to terminate May. May was not informed of that decision. On July 26, 1980, May informed Hawkins that the doctor would soon be releasing him to return to work. Hawkins arranged to meet with May the following week.

Hawkins instructed Milatz to terminate May on August 1, with the explanation that May had performed poorly with regard to employee relations, which manifested itself in labor relations problems which Kenall had experienced, and May's selection of a poorly qualified assistant, Blanca Fabian, who had been fired in July 1980. The week following May's termination, Hawkins himself repeated these two reasons to May. Hawkins' Conclusion that May created employee relations problems was a result of his own observations and information from Carlos Restrepos, a labor relations consultant Kenall had retained. Restrepos was on the Kenall premises from February through June 1980.

Hawkins testified further that no document existed at Kenall which set forth the reasons for May's firing. Kenall's common practice prior to termination was to inform an employee of unsatisfactory work performance and provide him with the opportunity to improve. May, however, was never warned about poor performance. Hawkins denied that Kenall's decision to terminate May was influenced by the cost of carrying May on the disability plan or increase in employment insurance premiums. The daily activities of an assembly-line foreman did not require physical exertion and could be performed by a person with a history of heart disease.

Ken Hawkins, James' father and Kenall's chief executive officer, testified that May had been hospitalized several times during his employment with Kenall, causing it to institute a long-term disability plan. In the spring of 1980, the Hawkins discussed the possibility of terminating May.

Otis Whitbey, a machine operator, testified that in 1979, Kenall employees began to discuss a walk-out when promised Christmas bonuses were withheld. Employee unrest increased after Kenall failed to give promised wage increases and better insurance benefits. May had a good relationship and communicated well with Kenall employees. Problems with May were not the basis of the complaints the workers had with management. Whitbey attended a meeting a few days after July 26, 1980. James Hawkins informed the employees at the meeting that May would not be returning to Kenall based on his doctor's recommendation. Basil and Ken Whitbey, Otis' sons and Kenall employees, testified similarly.

George Milatz testified that two weeks prior to May's heart attack, May informed Milatz that his assistant should be demoted as soon as a replacement could be found. Milatz subsequently made Fabian acting foreman of the assembly line while May was on disability leave. Milatz was responsible for her performance during May's absence. Milatz was instructed to fire May on August 1, but the only reason he gave May was that Milatz had found a new person who was better for the job. Although it was standard practice to give an employee a written statement describing the reasons for termination, Milatz did not document the reasons for May's termination until some time later, possibly ...

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