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02/23/87 Rochelle Lewis, v. Zachary Confections

February 23, 1987





505 N.E.2d 1087, 153 Ill. App. 3d 311, 106 Ill. Dec. 296 1987.IL.214

Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. Albert S. Porter, Judge, presiding.


Justice Buckley delivered the opinion of the court. Campbell and O'Connor, JJ., concur.


This appeal involves an action for retaliatory discharge brought by Rochelle Lewis, an employee (plaintiff), against Zachary Confections Company, her employer (Zachary). Following a trial, the jury rendered a verdict for the plaintiff awarding a total of $65,000 in damages. Judgment was entered on the jury's verdict, and Zachary appeals from the denial of its motions for a directed verdict, judgment notwithstanding the verdict, a new trial, and remittitur. For the reasons outlined below, we reverse.

The following testimony was introduced on behalf of plaintiff. Plaintiff testified that on December 7, 1982, she was hired to wrap and box assorted candies at Zachary Confections Company at 855 West Washington in Chicago. She and Gloria Norwood, someone plaintiff "knew in the neighborhood," heard about the availability of positions at Zachary from a mutual acquaintance. The two women, along with several others who interviewed at the same time, were hired by Zachary's plant manager Paul Nucera. Plaintiff testified that during that interview, Nucera told those present "we would be working for about 90 days; and if we was good, we could stay on, but we had to join the union."

Plaintiff further testified that on the morning of January 20, 1983, Matilda Wilborn, plaintiff's supervisor on the second floor, told her that Nucera had fired plaintiff and that she should report to his office. According to plaintiff, when she arrived, Nucera informed her that she was fired as a result of filing a workmens' compensation claim on January 5, 1983, arising out of an accident at the plant on December 18, 1982. Shortly after this conversation, plaintiff proceeded downstairs where she encountered Juanita McCormick, the first-floor supervisor, who reiterated that plaintiff was fired for filing the lawsuit. Following her discharge, plaintiff was unable to obtain other employment.

Gloria Norwood, who also was terminated before the 90-day period expired, testified that she and plaintiff "kind of" grew up together and that they heard about, applied, and interviewed for the job together. They also met at Zachary on their first day of work. Norwood further stated that on or about January 14, 1983, while she was in a closed stall in the ladies' lounge, she overheard Juanita McCormick tell "another lady," who Norwood was unable to identify, that plaintiff was "going to get fired because of the lawsuit." Norwood heard nothing further, and when she emerged from the stall, only McCormick was present. Norwood then left the lounge without speaking to McCormick.

Paul Nucera testified that on December 7, 1982, he hired six or seven employees in addition to plaintiff. Nucera denied telling plaintiff that should she prove to be a good employee, she could continue working beyond the 90-day period if she joined the union. Rather, he told her and the others at the interview "that the job was for 90 days, no benefits, no insurance, nothing, just temporary work." He did so because Zachary's union contract provided that seasonal employees could be hired for no more than 90 days. *fn1 Nucera stated that on January 20, 1983, he "laid off" plaintiff, as well as between 8 and 10 other employees, due to a "slow down of production."

Walter Splitgerber, treasurer of Zachary, testified that some time after January 6, 1983, but a week or two before plaintiff was terminated, he notified Nucera that it was improper to discharge an employee for filing a workmens' compensation claim. He first became aware of this prohibition when plaintiff filed her lawsuit. Splitgerber also asserted that plaintiff's time card contained the letter "T" signifying that she was a temporary employee.

Juanita McCormick denied telling plaintiff or anyone else that plaintiff was fired in retaliation for filing a workmens' compensation claim. Rather, according to her and Matilda Wilborn, plaintiff was "laid off" as a result of a seasonal decline in production. Moreover, both women stated that several other temporary employees were discharged the same time as plaintiff due to the slow down. There was conflicting testimony regarding whether plaintiff was working on the first or second floor when she was terminated.

After plaintiff elicited testimony from John Zachary, president of Zachary, that the company's net worth was $660,000, Zachary moved for a directed verdict which was denied. Mr. Zachary was therefore recalled to the stand by defense counsel. He testified that during 1982 and 1983, Zachary was manufacturing Valentine, Easter, and Christmas chocolates. The company's production cycle normally began after Labor Day and ended at Easter. Accordingly, while Zachary would employ approximately 80 union employees and 50 to 60 temporary employees during its height of production in December and January, by July, the work force would be reduced to 10 or 15 employees. Mr. Zachary also attested to defendant's exhibit No. 4, the time cards of 13 temporary employees, including plaintiff's, which bore the letter "T" and indicated those named were hired in either October, November, or December of 1982, and laid off around the third week in January 1983, except for Gloria Norwood, who was laid off in February of that year.

Based on the above testimony, the jury rendered a verdict for plaintiff, awarding her $5,000 compensatory damages and $60,000 punitive damages. On appeal, Zachary initially contends that the trial court erred in denying its motions for a directed verdict or judgment notwithstanding the verdict because plaintiff failed to demonstrate that she was fired in retaliation for filing a workmens' compensation claim. It is well established that a directed verdict or judgment n.o.v. should be entered in those cases where "all of the evidence, when viewed in its aspect most favorable to the opponent, so overwhelmingly favors movant that no contrary verdict based on that evidence ...

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