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07/20/88 James T. Beckman, v. Freeman United Coal Mining

July 20, 1988

JAMES T. BECKMAN, APPELLEE

v.

FREEMAN UNITED COAL MINING COMPANY, APPELLANT



SUPREME COURT OF ILLINOIS

527 N.E.2d 303, 123 Ill. 2d 281, 122 Ill. Dec. 805 1988.IL.1127

Appeal from the Appellate Court for the Fourth District; heard in that court on appeal from the Circuit Court of Macoupin County, the Hon. John W. Russell, Judge, presiding.

APPELLATE Judges:

JUSTICE CUNNINGHAM delivered the opinion of the court. JUSTICE STAMOS took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.

DECISION OF THE COURT DELIVERED BY THE HONORABLE JUDGE CUNNINGHAM

Plaintiff, James T. Beckman, filed this action in the circuit court of Macoupin County against defendant, Freeman United Coal Mining Company, to recover damages for a discharge allegedly in retaliation for the exercise of his rights under the Workers' Compensation Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1985, ch. 48, par. 138.4 et seq.). Defendant moved to dismiss the action alleging that the cause of action was barred by a prior judgment and "the claim assessed against defendant is barred by other affirmative matters avoiding the legal effect of or defeating the claim." The circuit court granted defendant's motion and dismissed the action. The appellate court reversed (151 Ill. App. 3d 47), and we allowed defendant's petition for leave to appeal under Supreme Court Rule 315 (107 Ill. 2d R. 315(a)).

In January 1985, defendant reemployed plaintiff as a roof bolter after a nearly three-year layoff. During the course of his employment, defendant suffered an accidental injury on August 6, 1985. He was knocked unconscious for a short period of time and after 20 to 30 minutes he was taken to the hospital emergency room by ambulance, pursuant to company policy. At the emergency room, the treating physician told plaintiff to take the rest of the shift off but instructed him that he would be able to return to work the next day. Plaintiff worked August 7 and 8. On August 9, plaintiff called defendant's answering machine prior to the start of the shift and stated that he was having trouble with his neck and was going to have it checked. Plaintiff, however, did go to work to pick up his paycheck and to inquire about special forms to have his neck examined. The chief safety inspector, the mine manager and the superintendent were in the office when plaintiff inquired about the special forms. Plaintiff was told that he only needed to tell the doctor that it was related to his August 6 injury.

On Monday, August 12, plaintiff again called the recording machine prior to the start of his shift to report off. His message stated that since he could not get to the doctor on August 9, he was going to the doctor that day. At 1:30 p.m. that day, plaintiff went to the office of Dr. James Hinchon. Thomas Mackey, a nurse practitioner, examined plaintiff and gave him a return-to-work slip that stated:

"Please excuse Mr. Beckman from work on 8-9-85 and 8-12-85 because of work injury on 8-6-85 with neck pain. He was seen on 8-12-85 by Thomas Mackey, RN -- Family Practitioner, at Dr. Hinchon's Meredosia office."

Plaintiff returned to work on August 13. On the next day, plaintiff's foreman told him that the company had questions about his return-to-work slip. At the end of his shift, plaintiff went to see his superintendent because the superintendent wanted to check out the slip. After he left work, plaintiff was called back to the mine and informed that he was being suspended with the intent to discharge for violating article XXII(i)(4) of the collective-bargaining agreement, which provides:

"When an employee absents himself from his work for a period of two (2) consecutive days without the consent of the employer, other than because of proven sickness, he may be discharged."

After the meeting on August 16, defendant announced its intent to proceed with the discharge. The union requested an immediate arbitration pursuant to article XXIV(d) of the collective-bargaining agreement. At the hearing on August 21, the arbitrator announced his decision to deny the grievance.

Plaintiff consequently filed a complaint in the circuit court of Macoupin County on November 14, 1985, alleging that defendant discharged him in retaliation for his "intention to pursue a claim for his injury." (Plaintiff filed his workers' compensation claim after the denial of his grievance.) Plaintiff also alleged that defendant was violating section 4(h) of the Workers' Compensation Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1985, ch. 48, par. 138.4(h)). In response to plaintiff's complaint, defendant filed a motion to dismiss with prejudice alleging that the arbitrator's finding of just cause for discharge barred plaintiff's action. On March 20, 1986, the circuit court entered its written order in light of its opinion expressed in a letter to the parties on March 12, 1986, finding that the arbitrator's finding of "just cause" for discharge barred plaintiff's retaliatory discharge action.

On appeal, the appellate court reversed the order of the circuit court, finding that res judicata did not apply because plaintiff had not placed the issue of retaliatory discharge before the industrial arbitrator. The appellate court further found that the ...


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