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Wenig v. Lockheed Environmental Systems

March 03, 2000


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice O'brien

Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County

Honorable Lee Preston, Judge Presiding

Plaintiff appeals the circuit court's dismissal of his second and third amended complaints, which alleged defendants unlawfully discharged him in retaliation for "blowing the whistle" on their violations of the Federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA) (42 U.S.C. §9601 et seq. (1994)), as later action is barred by (dictum of) res judicata.

On appeal, we consider whether dismissal of plaintiff's federal administrative retaliatory discharge proceeding "with prejudice" for want of prosecution constitutes a "judgment on the merits by a court of competent jurisdiction" and thus warrants dismissal of plaintiff's state statutory retaliatory discharge action as being barred under principles of res judicata. Because the orders of the circuit court were entered pursuant to section 2-619 of the Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/2- 619 (1998)), our standard of review is de novo. Spiegel v. Hollywood Towers Condominium Assn., 283 Ill. App. 3d 992, 998 (1996), citing Kedzie & 103rd Currency Exchange, Inc. v. Hodge, 156 Ill. 2d 112, 116-17 (1993). We reverse and remand for trial.

According to plaintiff's complaint, he was employed by Lockheed Environmental Systems and Technologies Company, a subsidiary of Lockheed Corporation (Lockheed), from 1991 to 1994. His job as a senior scientist was to supervise organic chemical analyses of water brought to the Chicago laboratory of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from sites that had been identified as toxic waste dumps within the scope of CERCLA.

According to plaintiff's complaint, a supervisor ordered him to alter certain chemical test results. Plaintiff, believing that such alteration would violate CERCLA, refused and reported the suspected violation to Lockheed through confidential internal channels. Then, another supervisor requested that he alter the test results. Plaintiff refused and was subsequently demoted, barred from entering the laboratory and humiliated in various ways. After he was demoted and barred from the lab, plaintiff again reported the suspected violation to Lockheed. Lockheed informed plaintiff that he would be terminated and compelled him to resign. According to plaintiff's complaint, Lockheed's actions toward him were in retaliation for, and as a result of, his reports that his supervisors had violated CERCLA.

Plaintiff filed a charge with the United States Department of Labor (Department) pursuant to the retaliatory discharge provision of CERCLA (42 U.S.C. §9610 (1994)). Following an investigation, the Department determined the charges were well-founded and ordered Lockheed to reinstate plaintiff to his employment. Lockheed appealed the order and the case was assigned to a Department administrative law judge (ALJ).

Later, plaintiff filed a complaint in the state circuit court against Lockheed which alleged, inter alia, retaliatory discharge. The next day, plaintiff notified the ALJ of the state circuit court case and indicated his desire to terminate the Department proceeding.

Plaintiff asked Lockheed to stipulate to a dismissal of the Department proceeding. Lockheed refused unless the dismissal was "with prejudice." Plaintiff rejected Lockheed's offer and moved to stay the Department proceeding while he prosecuted his claim in state circuit court. Lockheed objected to a stay and moved for dismissal of the Department proceeding with prejudice.

The ALJ denied both the motion for a stay and the motion for dismissal with prejudice and entered two amended scheduling orders. Based upon those orders, Lockheed pressed to take plaintiff's deposition. Plaintiff refused and moved for voluntary dismissal of the Department proceeding explaining, "Complainant Wenig has elected to prosecute his actions solely in the Circuit Court of Cook County where his lawsuit has been docketed as 95 L 8953." Lockheed had no objection to the dismissal, but insisted that it should be "with prejudice" so plaintiff would have "no further recourse to the Department of Labor." (Emphasis omitted.)

Citing this procedural history, the ALJ issued an order to show cause why the Department proceeding should not be dismissed with prejudice. Plaintiff did not respond and the ALJ dismissed the Department proceeding with prejudice.

Based upon the "with prejudice" language in the ALJ's dismissal order, Lockheed raised res judicata as an affirmative defense in plaintiff's state circuit court case. Plaintiff argued that res judicata does not apply unless the prior adjudication is "on the merits" and that the Department proceeding had not addressed the merits of the claim. Lockheed argued that the ALJ applied Rule 41(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (Fed. R. Civ. P. 41(b)) and, thus, the dismissal was an adjudication on the merits. Initially, the circuit court agreed with plaintiff and dismissed, inter alia, Lockheed's res judicata affirmative defense. However, while the parties prepared for trial in the state circuit court, a new judge assumed the case and plaintiff filed a second amended complaint. Lockheed resurrected its res judicata defense and presented it to the new judge as a motion to dismiss the second amended complaint. The circuit court, by the new judge, granted Lockheed's motion and entered an order stating there were no just grounds to delay the appeal under Supreme Court Rule 304(a). 155 Ill. 2d R. 304(a). Plaintiff filed his notice of appeal as to the second amended complaint.

Meanwhile, plaintiff obtained leave to file a third amended complaint in order to add Lockheed Martin (created from the merger of Lockheed Corporation and Martin-Marietta Corporation) and Lockheed Martin Advanced Environmental Systems (the successor to the original defendant, Lockheed Environmental Systems and Technologies, Inc.) as defendants. The new judge granted the request for leave to file the third amended complaint over Lockheed's objections, but then dismissed it as being barred by res judicata as to the new defendants. Plaintiff filed his notice of appeal as to the third amended complaint. The two cases were consolidated on appeal.

The doctrine of res judicata bars the refiling of an action previously adjudicated on the merits when the action is directed against the same parties and involves the same claims. Rein v. David A. Noyes & Co., 172 Ill. 2d 325, 334, 665 N.E.2d 1199 (1996). The doctrine applies if three conditions are satisfied: (1) a final judgment on the merits has been entered in the first lawsuit by a court of competent jurisdiction; (2) an identity of causes of action exists; (3) the parties or their privies are identical in both lawsuits. Rein, 172 Ill. 2d at 335. Here, there is no issue as to criterion (2) or (3). The question is whether the ALJ's dismissal of plaintiff's Department ...

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