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December 30, 1994


Appeal from the Circuit Court Cook County. Honorable Paddy McNamara, Judge Presiding.

Rehearing Denied February 3, 1995.

The Honorable Justice Zwick delivered the opinion of the court: Egan, P.j. and McNAMARA, J., concur.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Zwick

JUSTICE ZWICK delivered the opinion of the court:

Plaintiff, Dorothy Evans, brought an action to recover damages for an alleged wrongful termination by her employer. During a bench trial and following the close of plaintiff's case, the trial court granted defendant's motion for a finding on the evidence. Plaintiff brings this timely appeal pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 301 (134 Ill. 2d R. 301).

We are asked to decide whether a former employee may base a wrongful termination claim upon oral statements made by the former employer and, if so, whether the plaintiff in this case has potentially made out such a claim. We find that the terms of an at-will employment agreement may be modified by an employer's oral promises, but that the oral statements at issue in this case do not rise to a level necessary to create a prima facie claim of wrongful termination.

Plaintiff was employed as the executive housekeeper for the defendants. On August 21, 1991, she filed a wrongful discharge complaint in the Law Division. In the complaint, she alleged that she had been terminated by Debbie Frank, a General Manager for the defendant Holiday Inn-Gurnee, for no apparent reason and without warning. She claimed that the termination was against the defendants' employment policy of first giving employees three prior verbal or written warnings.

As noted, the cause was tried in a bench trial. Following opening statements by the plaintiff, defendant's counsel made a motion to dismiss the case. He argued that the plaintiff had conceded in his opening statement that there were no written policies which would have precluded the defendants from terminating the plaintiff without warning, and that without a written policy the plaintiff could not make her case as a matter of law. The trial court declined to rule on the motion, allowing the plaintiff to proceed with the case.

Grace Garza, a maid employed at the Holiday Inn-Gurnee, testified first for the plaintiff. She stated that on July 6, 1991, Debbie Frank came from the plaintiff's office and announced to the staff that the plaintiff had just been terminated. According to Garza, a woman named Patty Siegel replaced the plaintiff. Defendants did not cross-examine Garza.

The plaintiff herself testified next. She stated that she had begun working for the Holiday Inn in May of 1981 as a maid. Several months after she began working the general manager, a man named Mr. Hedden, called all the employees of the hotel together in the ballroom. According to the plaintiff, Hedden said that he represented the Holiday Inn and that he did not want anyone to be ill-treated. With regard to what Hedden said about employee discipline, the plaintiff testified:

"He wanted the company to run good. If we did something we wasn't supposed to do, first we were talked to and then we were written up. And we were allowed three times whether it was written or told to us but we had three times in a year to mess up and then we would be terminated. And then the other thing would be that if we came in drunk or we were on dope or we fought, stole, then it was instant termination."

Plaintiff testified that she relied upon Hedden's statements and that this three-warnings policy was followed during the period of time she worked there.

With regard to the day she was terminated, plaintiff testified that Debbie Frank, an assistant to a man named Mr. Carre, told her that she was a good worker and that she got along well with the customers and staff. However, according to the plaintiff, Frank also told her that she was terminated. Frank apparently did so because Carre was unhappy with her.

Plaintiff introduced into evidence a document which she testified was a written warning used by the Holiday Inn when employees were disciplined. She testified that she had received "a couple of them" during the ten years she had been employed there. She testified "whoever it was got three of these or a combination if she had been talked to. It had to amount to three times." She also testified that she lost approximately 10 months of wages after she ...

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