Appeal from the Circuit Court of Madison County. No. 93-L-794. Honorable Nicholas G. Byron, Judge, presiding.
The Honorable Justice Chapman delivered the opinion of the court: Rarick, J., and Goldenhersh, J., concur.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Chapman
The Honorable Justice CHAPMAN delivered the opinion of the court:
On October 3, 1991, plaintiff, William D. Heldenbrand (Heldenbrand), was terminated from his employment with defendant, Roadmaster Corporation (Roadmaster). Heldenbrand alleged that his termination was in retaliation for exercising his rights under the Illinois Workers' Compensation Act (820 ILCS 305/1 et seq. (West 1992)). Following a bench trial, the court awarded Heldenbrand $200,000 for lost wages, $50,000 for emotional pain and suffering, and $750,000 as punitive damages. Defendant appeals on three bases: (1) the evidence was insufficient as a matter of law to sustain a judgment finding that, but for plaintiff's filing a workers' compensation claim, he would still be employed by Roadmaster; (2) the trial court's methodology in awarding compensatory damages was improper; and (3) the evidence was insufficient to support an award of punitive damages. We affirm the judgment in plaintiff's favor but reduce the compensatory damages.
William Heldenbrand was employed by Roadmaster and its predecessor for 25 years before he was discharged on October 3, 1991. During his employment, Heldenbrand had been injured at work several times. These injuries included a severed finger, two crushed fingers, a crushed foot, a slipped disk in his back, and several wrist injuries which resulted in two surgeries. Heldenbrand had previously received workers' compensation for these injuries. He had always returned to the company within one year, initially working on "restricted duty" -- a program designed to return employees recovering from any type of injury to work in a reduced capacity consistent with their capabilities and the work available -- and then returning to his prior positions.
In August of 1990, Heldenbrand injured his wrist for the second time. When he returned to work, Heldenbrand was placed on restricted duty. Heldenbrand took time off work between August 14 and September 4, 1990, and then returned to his restricted position. On September 10, 1990, Heldenbrand took an indefinite leave from Roadmaster in order to recover from his wrist injury. During all of these absences from work, Heldenbrand received workers' compensation benefits.
In July or August 1991, Heldenbrand's doctor sent Roadmaster a note which released Heldenbrand to return to restricted duty with no lifting in excess of five pounds. At that time, Roadmaster's nurse went to Heldenbrand's former department, looked at the jobs that were available, identified the types of activities required for those jobs, and determined that Heldenbrand could not perform any of them without violating his doctor's restrictions.
On September 19, 1991, the company doctor sent a letter to Roadmaster's insurance carrier indicating that Heldenbrand's anticipated release from his care was October 9, 1991. On October 3, 1991, Roadmaster fired Heldenbrand by letter for violation of the company's leave-of-absence policy, which was set forth in the "Last Best Offer For An Agreement Between Roadmaster Corporation And Laborers' Local 504" (Last Best Offer Agreement). This Last Best Offer Agreement contained Roadmaster's basic employment policies and was posted on a company bulletin board. Both parties agree that the Last Best Offer Agreement governs the time period involved in this dispute.
Article 13 of the Last Best Offer Agreement, titled "Leave of Absence," states in relevant part:
"B. In the event of illness, accident or pregnancy, any permanent employee who submits medical proof of disability shall be given a Sick Leave of Absence without pay. Such absence shall not exceed the lesser of the employee's total length of service or six (6) months. An extension of six (6) months may be mutually agreed to by the Company, employee and the Union."
Roadmaster contends that Heldenbrand's absence from September 10, 1990, to his scheduled return date of October 9, 1991, enabled Roadmaster to terminate Heldenbrand for violating the policy prohibiting a 12-month absence. Heldenbrand argues that the leave-of-absence policy applies only to sick leave, that he was not absent on sick leave, and that he was governed by the company's rules for workers' compensation injuries, which do not include the six-month/one-year absence provision. More specifically, Heldenbrand claims that Roadmaster fired him in retaliation for exercising his rights under the Illinois Workers' Compensation Act.
Roadmaster first argues that the evidence is insufficient as a matter of law to sustain a judgment finding that, but for the fact that plaintiff filed a workers' compensation claim, he would still be employed by Roadmaster.
Generally, an at-will employee may be terminated at any time, for any cause or for no cause. ( Hartlein v. Illinois Power Co. (1992), 151 Ill. 2d 142, 159, 601 N.E.2d 720, 728, 176 Ill. Dec. 22.) In Kelsay v. Motorola, Inc. (1978), 74 Ill. 2d 172, 181, 384 N.E.2d 353, 357, 23 Ill. Dec. 559, Illinois recognized a cause of action for retaliatory discharge and created a limited exception to this general rule. In Kelsay, an employee was discharged in retaliation for filing a workers' compensation claim. The Illinois Supreme Court created a cause of action for retaliatory discharge to uphold and protect public policy against unlawful interference with employees' rights under the Workers' Compensation Act. ( Kelsay, 74 Ill. 2d at 181, 384 N.E.2d at 357.) Kelsay removed injured employees from the "no-win" position of seeking the statutory remedy for their injuries and losing their jobs or keeping their jobs and sacrificing their statutory remedies.
A retaliatory discharge claim requires a showing: (1) that an employee has been discharged; (2) that the discharge was in retaliation for the employee's activities; and (3) that the discharge violates a clear mandate of public policy. ( Hartlein, 151 Ill. 2d at 160, 601 N.E.2d at 728.) Causation is not established if the basis for the discharge is valid and nonpretextual. ( Slover v. Brown (1986), 140 Ill. App. 3d 618, 621, 488 N.E.2d 1103, 1105, 94 Ill. Dec. 856.) In other words, an employer is not liable for retaliatory discharge solely because the employer fired an employee who has previously filed a workers' compensation claim. The employee must affirmatively show that the discharge was to retaliate against him for exercising the protected right. Dixon Distributing Co. v. Hanover Insurance Co. (1993), 244 Ill. App. 3d 837, 845, 612 N.E.2d 846, 852, 183 Ill. Dec. 919, aff'd (1994), 161 Ill. 2d 433, 641 N.E.2d 395, 204 Ill. Dec. 171.
A retaliatory discharge action is somewhat analogous to a claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII provides, in pertinent part:
"It shall be unlawful employment practice for an employer *** to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's race, color, ...