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Clark v. Owens-Brockway Glass Container Inc.

July 16, 1998


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Maag

Appeal from the Circuit Court of Madison County.

No. 92-L-596

Honorable Phillip J. Kardis, Judge, presiding.

The plaintiff, Gloria Clark, is a former employee of the defendant, Owens-Brockway Glass Container, Inc. (Owens-Brockway). Clark brought an action to recover damages for retaliatory discharge. On cross-motions for summary judgment, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Clark on the issue of liability. A jury trial on the issue of damages resulted in Clark being awarded more than $150,000. Following the denial of its posttrial motion, Owens-Brockway appealed.

Clark worked at Owens-Brockway from June 1989 until June 1992. She performed various kinds of unskilled labor and was paid approximately $11 per hour.

On March 3, 1992, she injured her back at work. She began treatment with her family physician, Dr. Hoelscher, on March 6, 1992. Dr. Hoelscher ordered her off work. On March 11, 1992, Clark was examined by Owens-Brockway's physician, Dr. Burch. Dr. Burch agreed with Dr. Hoelscher's orders. On March 13, 1992, Owens-Brockway began paying temporary total disability (TTD) payments to Clark.

While off work, Clark participated in a physical therapy/work-hardening program as prescribed by Dr. Hoelscher. Later, Dr. Hoelscher referred Clark to Dr. Johnson, an orthopedic surgeon. Clark continued the physical therapy/work-hardening program. The program was intended to rehabilitate Clark and facilitate her return to work at Owens-Brockway.

Owens-Brockway suspected that Clark was malingering. It hired an investigator to monitor Clark's daily activities, and on May 22, 1992, the investigator videotaped Clark mowing her lawn.

On May 24, 1992, David Bailey, the industrial relations director for Owens-Brockway, reviewed the surveillance tape. By letter dated June 1, 1992, Bailey informed Clark that she was suspended pending termination for "frudulent [sic] misrepresentation and conduct" in connection with her claims for workers' compensation. On June 3, 1992, a discharge hearing was held and Clark was fired. Clark then filed this action alleging retaliatory discharge against "Owens-Illinois, Inc."

Owens-Brockway first contends that the trial court erred in denying summary judgment in its favor. Owens-Brockway claims that the trial court incorrectly believed that it was required to rule in favor of one party or the other because both parties filed motions for summary judgment. Apparently, the court believed that by filing cross-motions for summary judgment the parties were in effect agreeing that no genuine issue of material fact existed. Owens-Brockway is correct in its contention that "the mere filing of cross-motions does not compel the court to grant summary judgment in favor of one party or the other." Estate of Blakely v. Federal Kemper Life Assurance Co., 267 Ill. App. 3d 100, 109, 640 N.E.2d 961, 968 (1994). However, we are not bound by the trial court's reasoning and may rely upon any ground present in the record to sustain the trial court's decision. Estate of Blakely, 267 Ill. App. 3d at 109, 640 N.E.2d at 968, citing Bell v. Louisville & Nashville R.R. Co., 106 Ill. 2d 135, 148, 478 N.E.2d 384 (1985).

The facts of this case amply demonstrate an issue in every workers' compensation case, i.e., the nature and extent of the injury. Owens-Brockway argues that if it had an honestly held belief that Clark lied about or exaggerated her injuries, it has a valid, permissible basis for the discharge. It argues that if it believes that an employee has lied or committed fraud, such belief is sufficient to immunize an employer from liability for wrongful discharge. Wayne v. Exxon Coal USA, Inc., 157 Ill. App. 3d 514, 518, 510 N.E.2d 468, 471 (1987), is cited in support.

It is well settled in Illinois that, generally speaking, an at-will employee can be discharged for any reason or no reason at all. One of the exceptions to the general rule is a discharge in retaliation for filing a workers' compensation claim. Kelsay v. Motorola, Inc., 74 Ill. 2d 172, 181, 384 N.E.2d 353, 357 (1978). In such a case, the employer's otherwise absolute right to terminate an at-will employee is curtailed. Kelsay, 74 Ill. 2d at 181, 384 N.E.2d at 357.

To recover for retaliatory discharge, a claimant must show that (1) he or she was an employee of the defendant before or at the time of the injury, (2) he or she exercised some right granted by the Workers' Compensation Act (Act) (820 ILCS 305/1 et seq. (West 1994)), and (3) his or her discharge was causally related to the exercise of rights under the Act. Slover v. Brown, 140 Ill. App. 3d 618, 620, 488 N.E.2d 1103, 1105 (1986). In the case at bar, both parties agree that Clark was an employee of Owens-Brockway at the time of the injury and that she exercised her right to benefits under the Act. The parties disagree as to whether her discharge was causally related to the exercise of her rights under the Act. This focuses our attention to a Discussion of causation.

"Cause" is defined as "[s]omething that precedes and brings about an effect or a result." Black's Law Dictionary 221 (6th ed. 1990). "Related" is defined as "connected". Black's Law Dictionary 1288 (6th ed. 1990). The undisputed fact is that Clark filed for and was collecting workers' compensation benefits prior to her discharge. The undisputed fact is that she was discharged because her employer believed that her claim for benefits was exaggerated. Her employer admits that her discharge was connected to her workers' compensation filing and her collection of benefits since Bailey, the industrial relations director, thought she was malingering and collecting benefits to which she was not entitled. He used this as a basis to claim she was guilty of fraudulent acts justifying the termination of her employment. Therefore, her discharge was, as a matter of law, "causally related" to the filing of a claim under the Workers' Compensation Act. "`When a first cause produces a second cause that produces a result, the first cause is the cause of that result.'" Bocian v. Industrial Comm'n, 282 Ill. App. 3d 519, 527, 668 N.E.2d 1, 6 (1996), quoting Harper v. Industrial Comm'n, 24 Ill. 2d 103, 109, 180 N.E.2d 480 (1962). The entry of summary judgment in favor of Clark was proper because her discharge was directly and proximately related to her claim for benefits. This does not mean that an employer may never discharge an employee who has filed ...

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