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09/09/97 DENNIS CLEMONS v. MECHANICAL DEVICES

September 9, 1997

DENNIS CLEMONS, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE AND CROSS-APPELLANT,
v.
MECHANICAL DEVICES, CO., DEFENDANT-APPELLANT AND CROSS-APPELLEE.



Appeal from Circuit Court of McLean County. No. 95L12. Honorable W. Charles Witte, Judge Presiding.

Honorable Robert J. Steigmann, P.j., Honorable John T. McCullough, J. - Concur, Honorable Robert W. Cook, J. - Dissent. Presiding Justice Steigmann delivered the opinion of the court. McCULLOUGH, J., concurs. Justice Cook, dissenting.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Steigmann

PRESIDING JUSTICE STEIGMANN delivered the opinion of the court:

In January 1995, plaintiff, Dennis Clemons, filed a complaint against defendant, Mechanical Devices, Company (Mechanical), alleging that Mechanical had wrongfully discharged him in retaliation for his filing a workers' compensation claim. In October 1996, a jury returned a verdict for Clemons and against Mechanical and awarded him compensatory damages of $63,520.23.

Mechanical appeals, arguing that the trial court erred by (1) admitting evidence regarding the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act (Wage Act) (820 ILCS 115/1 et seq. (West 1994)) and instructing the jury on portions of that act; (2) allowing a lay witness to interpret statutory law; (3) allowing Clemons to amend his complaint following the close of evidence; (4) denying Mechanical's motion for judgment on the grounds of res judicata; (5) denying Mechanical an opportunity to cross-examine Clemons as to his testimony at an administrative hearing; (6) refusing to allow a witness to testify regarding payments made by Clemons' health insurance company; (7) refusing to give Mechanical's nonpattern jury instruction defining "at will" employment to the jury; and (8) allowing the jury to consider emotional distress as an element of damages. Mechanical also argues that the verdict was against the manifest weight of the evidence.

Because we agree with Mechanical's first argument--namely, that the trial court erred by admitting evidence regarding the Wage Act and instructing the jury on portions of that act--we reverse and remand for a new trial.

I. BACKGROUND

In January 1995, Clemons filed a complaint against Mechanical, alleging that Mechanical had wrongfully discharged him in retaliation for his filing a workers' compensation claim. This case was tried before a jury during September and October 1996, and the evidence showed the following. Mechanical, located in Bloomington, Illinois, did design, engineering, and machine shop work.

In August 1988, Clemons began working at Mechanical as a machine operator. He told Mechanical's staff that he had previously had back surgery. On June 1, 1989, Clemons injured his back at work while lifting machine parts. He reported the injury to his foreman, Clarence Hatfield, and the following day (at the direction of Irene Sperry, a co-owner of Mechanical), he saw Dr. Larry Nord, who prescribed pain medication. Although Nord advised Clemons not to return to work, he did so that same day and worked the rest of June without further injury. Mechanical's workers" compensation carrier processed and paid the bills incurred as a result of the June 1989 injury.

On July 1, 1989, Clemons heard his back "pop" while he was working, yet he worked the remainder of his shift. Upon leaving work that day, he told Hatfield that his back was "still bothering" him and he was going to take it easy over the weekend. Hatfield testified that he recalled Clemons reporting the June 1989 incident; however, he did not recall Clemons reporting an injury on July 1, 1989. Linda Fillingham, Mechanical's office manager, testified that she did not receive notice on July 1, 1989, that Clemons injured himself. Clemons testified that he stayed flat on his back "the whole weekend," and his back pain was in the same place as it was after the June 1989 injury.

On Monday, July 3, 1989, Clemons' back "popped" while he was bending over to tie his shoes at home. He telephoned Fillingham and told her that he was not coming to work because he hurt his back while tying his shoes. Fillingham told him that she would send him a health insurance form to complete. Clemons testified that he had a conversation with Irene, who told him that she "knew this [(the July 1989 injury)] was not workmen's compensation and if [he] filed it that way, [he] would be discharged." Clemons also stated that he believed Irene because "she doesn't say anything without meaning it." At some point after speaking with Irene, Clemons (with his wife's assistance) completed the health insurance form, signed it, and returned it to Mechanical. The form, as filled out by Clemons and his wife on July 13, 1989, indicated that the July 1989 injury was not work related.

Clemons also stated that someone from Mechanical called Nord's office and told Nord's secretary not to file the July 1989 injury as a workers' compensation claim. Fillingham acknowledged that she had a telephone conversation with Nord on July 10, 1989, during which she told him to keep his records straight between the June 1989 injury (which was being processed as a workers' compensation claim) and the July 1989 injury (which was being processed by Mechanical's health insurance company).

Clemons' wife, Janetta, testified that on July 3, 1989, she heard "a loud pop" from Clemons' back as he was preparing to go to work. Later that same day (after Clemons spoke with Fillingham), they received a telephone call from Irene. When Janetta told Irene that Clemons was not available, Irene said that she did not like "to get the wives involved in things like this" and hung up.

Clemons returned to work on Thursday, July 27, 1989. He worked that day and Friday, July 28, 1989. He previously had elected to take the next week (July 29, 1989, through August 4, 1989) as a vacation week.

On August 2, 1989, Clemons talked with an attorney, Kevin Miller, at the Janssen Law Center (Janssen). On that same day, Clemons signed a blank workers' compensation application in Miller's office. Miller testified that he telephoned Mechanical that same day and asked the identity of the company's workers' compensation carrier. Someone at Mechanical told him that such a request must be submitted in writing. Janssen's subpoenaed telephone records did not show that Miller made a telephone call to Mechanical. However, Miller stated that all of the telephone records may not have been produced. Miller also stated that Clemons was hesitant to file a workers' compensation claim; nonetheless, Miller proceeded with the claim on August 2, 1989.

On August 4, 1989, Clemons went to Mechanical and told them that he wanted his paycheck for Thursday, July 27, 1989, and Friday, July 28, 1989. He was told that he would be paid for those two days on August 11, 1989, in the following week's regular check, thus making a full week's check. This was the same way vacation had been paid to all Mechanical employees for previous vacation periods. Mechanical paid its employees on Fridays for the previous Thursday through Wednesday pay period and paid them for vacations one week in advance. Miller called and told someone at Mechanical that they could not hold the two days' pay. Fillingham told Miller that Clemons could receive a paycheck for those days, but if he took his pay in a manner different from all other employees, he would no longer be employed by Mechanical. Fillingham also testified that Clemons quit when he chose to be paid differently from all other employees and he was not fired because he retained an attorney to file a workers' compensation claim.

Barb Gullett, Nord's receptionist, testified that when Clemons came to Nord's office for the June 1989 injury, he filled out a workers' compensation patient questionnaire. The first bill sent out by Nord's office had a "WC" (workers' compensation) designation. A bill dated July 27, 1989, also contained a "WC" designation, but Gulletthad crossed through that entry and written "personal injury 7-3-89." Gullett stated that Nord gave her that information. Prior to the July 10, 1989, telephone call with Fillingham, all of Nord's records contained a "WC" designation. After the phone conversation, all of the records relating to the July 1989 injury were changed to reflect a personal injury designation.

On August 8, 1989, Mechanical received an application for adjustment of claim stating that the July 1989 injury was work related. At that time, Fillingham put the health insurance forms on hold until she could determine whether the injury was work related. She also stated that she voided some of the health insurance checks and sent letters to health providers indicating that Mechanical would not pay any health-related medical bills. In her testimony during Mechanical's case in chief, Fillingham stated that she had incorrectly testified that Mechanical had paid none of Clemons' health-related medical bills because she previously did not have access to all of the pertinent records. She further stated that when Clemons submitted bills to Mechanical for the July 1989 injury, Mechanical's health plan paid them (except for Clemons' deductible and co-pay portions). Mechanical did not pay other medical bills which were not submitted to it.

After the Industrial Commission denied his workers' compensation claim for the July 1989 injury, Clemons resubmitted his bills to Mechanical's health insurance provider. According to Clemons, Mechanical never submitted the bills to its health insurance company.

Randy Griffin, a former Mechanical employee, testified that he sustained a hernia while lifting a block at work. He reported his injury to Mechanical, and it instructed him to complete a health insurance form. Fillingham subsequently requested that he write a statement that his injury did not occur at work. Griffin refused to do so because he believed it happened at work. Griffin stated that he never had any intention of filing a workers' compensation claim; however, he did not want to write the requested statement. That same day, Irene told him he was no longer needed as an employee.

On this evidence, the jury returned a verdict for Clemons and against Mechanical and awarded him compensatory damages of $63,520.23.

II. RELEVANCE OF THE WAGE ACT

Mechanical first argues that the trial court erred by admitting evidence regarding the Wage Act and instructing the jury on portions of that act. Specifically, Mechanical contends the Wage Act was irrelevant to the issues in this case. In response, Clemons argues thatevidence regarding the Wage Act was relevant, not because he based his claim upon a violation of the Wage Act, but because Mechanical proffered as a defense that Clemons demanded that he be paid differently from all other employees. We conclude that evidence regarding the Wage Act was wholly irrelevant to the issues in this case.

A. Relevance of the Wage Act to Clemons' Claim of Retaliatory Discharge

Clemons' initial complaint alleged that "in retaliation for filing the worker's compensation claim, [Mechanical] wrongfully discharged [Clemons]." Clemons' amended complaint (filed after the close of all evidence) alleged, in relevant part:

"10. *** [Mechanical] intentionally interfered with and restrained [Clemons') rights under the Workers' Compensation Act in violation of 820 ILCS 305/4(h) [(West 1994)].

*** In retaliation of [Clemons'] exercise of his statutory rights, [Mechanical] wrongfully discharged [Clemons]."

During trial court arguments on Clemons' motion for leave to file an amended complaint, he stated as follows:

"That [(the Wage Act)] is not what we are alleging in this case; that is what [Mechanical] is alleging as [its] reason for terminating [Clemons]. Our complaint alleges that [Clemons] was terminated in retaliation for his filing of a workers' compensation claim. The ...


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