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Reinneck v. Taco Bell Corp.

June 22, 1998

VICKI R. REINNECK, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
v.
TACO BELL CORPORATION, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of St. Clair County. No. 95-L-865

Justices: Honorable Charles W. Chapman, J. Honorable Gordon E. Maag, J., and Honorable Richard P. Goldenhersh, J., Concur

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Chapman delivered the opinion of the court:

Honorable Michael J. O'Malley, Judge, presiding.

Plaintiff, Vicki Reinneck, filed a complaint against her former employer, Taco Bell Corporation (Taco Bell), seeking compensatory and punitive damages, as well as damages for mental anguish and for injury to her reputation. Plaintiff alleged that she was terminated by defendant in retaliation for asserting her rights to workers' compensation. After a bench trial, the trial court found for plaintiff and assessed damages in the amount of $370,000 in compensatory damages, $25,000 for mental anguish, and $1,000,000 in punitive damages.

Defendant appeals, asserting that (1) there is no cause of action for retaliatory discharge in Illinois for an exercise of rights under another state's workers' compensation laws, (2) its due process rights were violated because the court misinterpreted the Illinois Workers' Compensation Act (820 ILCS 305/1 et seq. (West 1994)), (3) the trial court erred in allowing the testimony of former Taco Bell employees called by plaintiff, and (4) the trial court erred by not allowing the testimony of a witness that defendant wished to call in rebuttal. Defendant further asserts that (5) the compensatory award should be overturned because it was against the manifest weight of the evidence, (6) the award for emotional distress should be reversed because plaintiff failed to present any evidence on the issue, and (7) the trial court's decision is against the manifest weight of the evidence. Finally, defendant contends that the trial court erred in finding that (8) plaintiff's testimony was credible and (9) plaintiff proved that she was terminated in retaliation for exercising her rights to compensation. We discuss the issues in the order they were raised by defendant. For the following reasons, we affirm.

Defendant first contends that the trial court erred in entering judgment for plaintiff because no cause of action for retaliatory discharge exists under Illinois law for an exercise of rights under another state's workers' compensation statute. We believe that defendant's argument is misplaced. First, it was not necessary for the trial court to find that plaintiff was fired because she asserted her rights under another state's workers' compensation laws. Plaintiff's complaint asserted that she was fired in retaliation for asserting her rights under the Missouri and Illinois Workers' Compensation Acts. It is undisputed that Illinois recognizes a cause of action for the retaliatory discharge of an employee who asserts his or her rights to workers' compensation. See Kelsay v. Motorola, 74 Ill. 2d 172, 384 N.E.2d 353 (1978). The fact that a plaintiff has not filed a claim in Illinois prior to her discharge does not preclude her from bringing a retaliatory discharge cause of action; it is enough if she had sought medical attention for her injuries and that her employer discharged her for that assertion of her workers' compensation rights. Bray v. Stan's Rental, Inc., 196 Ill. App. 3d 384, 387, 553 N.E.2d 791, 792-93 (1990). Before she was terminated, plaintiff sought medical attention for her injuries, informed her Illinois supervisors about her injuries, and informed the same supervisors that she was hiring a lawyer to pursue her remedies. Therefore, the pleadings support a retaliatory discharge cause of action under Illinois law pursuant to her assertion of rights under the Illinois Workers' Compensation Act only.

Additionally, we conclude that the trial court could have properly found that it is against Illinois public policy to terminate an employee for the assertion of another state's workers' compensation rights. Defendant repeatedly argues that to allow plaintiff to recover under the circumstances of this case is to expand the tort of retaliatory discharge in Illinois. This argument is unpersuasive. Illinois has long recognized the tort of retaliatory discharge for exercising rights to workers' compensation. See Kelsay v. Motorola, 74 Ill. 2d 172, 384 N.E.2d 353 (1978). It makes no logical difference, and is not an expansion of the tort, to hold that an employer is subject to liability for retaliating against a worker who has exercised his or her rights under another state's workers' compensation law. The tort is the same; there is no expansion.

We note that the Illinois Supreme Court has determined that the tort of retaliatory discharge also protects employees who have filed compensation claims against other employers. See Darnell v. Impact Industries, Inc., 105 Ill. 2d 158, 473 N.E.2d 935 (1984). We can find no logical reason not to protect employees who have filed compensation claims against the same employer in another state.

Defendant next argues that its right of due process was violated because the court misinterpreted the Illinois Workers' Compensation Act to include a cause of action for retaliatory discharge pursuant to another state's workers' compensation law. In light of our Discussion and ruling on the previous point, we need not further discuss this issue.

Next, defendant asserts that the trial court erred in admitting into evidence the testimony of former employees of defendant. Defendant argues that the testimony should not have been allowed because evidence of prior wrongs is not admissible to show conformity therewith on the occasion at issue. In its order, the court stated that it did not consider this testimony for the purpose of assessing compensatory damages but did consider it in assessing punitive damages. We conclude that the trial court would have been correct to admit the evidence in assessing both types of damages depending upon the purpose for which the evidence was used.

The general rule is that evidence of prior similar tortious or wrongful conduct is not relevant on the question of the conduct on the occasion in issue unless the evidence is offered to show habit, state of mind, knowledge, motive, or intent. Joseph Taylor Coal Co. v. Dawes, 220 Ill. 145, 77 N.E. 131 (1906); Wernowsky v. Economy Fire & Casualty Co., 106 Ill. 2d 49, 477 N.E.2d 231 (1985). The ultimate issue to be decided in a retaliatory discharge action is the employer's motive in discharging the employee. Hartlein v. Illinois Power Co., 151 Ill. 2d 142, 163, 601 N.E.2d 720, 730 (1992). Evidence of prior discriminatory conduct or of statements condoning or advocating discrimination is admissible to show motive. Mack v. First Security Bank of Chicago, 158 Ill. App. 3d 497, 511 N.E.2d 714 (1987).

The testimony of former Taco Bell employees who were fired for filing claims or who overheard management personnel discussing firing employees who filed compensation claims is directly relevant to one of the ultimate issues in this case--motive. Therefore, the testimony was properly admitted.

Defendant argues that Knecht v. Radiac Abrasives, Inc., 219 Ill. App. 3d 979, 579 N.E.2d 1248 (1991), prohibits the introduction of the other employees' testimony. In Knecht, the defendant sought to introduce testimony to show that it treated fairly other employees who filed workers' compensation claims. The court pointed out the general rule that evidence of conduct on other occasions is not relevant on the question of conduct on the occasion in issue unless the evidence is offered to show habit, routine business practice, state of mind, knowledge, or intent. Knecht, 219 Ill. App. 3d at 986, 579 N.E.2d at 1252. The court ruled that the evidence of the defendant's treatment of other workers was not proper evidence of habit or routine business practice and that it could not be construed as evidence of state of mind, intent, or knowledge. Therefore, the court held, the trial court was correct in not allowing the testimony. Knecht, 219 Ill. App. 3d at 987-88, 579 N.E.2d at 1254.

In the case at bar, the testimony of the former employees was offered to show defendant's motive for terminating an employee who files, or might file, a compensation claim. The motive established through this testimony supported plaintiff's claim that defendant's reasons for firing her were pretextual. We conclude ...


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