Appeal from the Circuit Court of Washington County. No. 03-L-20 Honorable Dennis G. Hatch, Judge, presiding.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Goldenhersh
NOTICE The text of this dec ision m ay be changed or corrected prior to the filing of a Petition for Re hea ring o r the disposition of the same.
JUSTICE GOLDENHERSH delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices Donovan and Wexstten concurred in the judgment and opinion.
¶ 1 Plaintiffs, Wayne Michael, Alan Hohman, and Craig Kluemke, filed suit for retaliatory discharge against defendant, Precision Alliance Group, LLC, in the circuit court of Washington County. Upon the motion of defendant, the court entered a summary judgment. On appeal, plaintiffs raise issues regarding whether the record presents genuine issues of material fact precluding the entry of a summary judgment. We reverse and remand.
¶ 3 Defendant is an agricultural supply business dealing in soybeans. Defendant grows, conditions, packages, and distributes soybean seeds for commercial agricultural use. It contracts with local farmers to grow soybeans for seed production, conditions the seeds, and packs them into 50-pound bags and 2,000-pound bags for commercial sale. Defendant contends that it implemented strict protocols to ensure that each bag was properly filled, and it points out that each plaintiff testified in depositions to being thoroughly trained to monitor and correct any issue with low-weight bags. Defendant further contends that it customarily filled the bags with more than the labeled weight in order to compensate for normal seed shrinkage that would occur after bagging.
¶ 4 Each of the plaintiffs worked at defendant's facility in Nashville, Illinois. During that time, approximately 20 laborers and 4 on-site management staff members worked at the facility. Hohman worked on the bagging line, Kluemke worked in the bagging room, and Michael worked in the warehouse. Hohman was fired on March 18, 2003, and Michael and Kluemke were fired on April 11, 2003.
¶ 5 Defendant contends that despite implementing stringent protocols, it began experiencing a problem with underweight seed bags. According to the affidavit of defendant's general manager, Gary Shepherd, defendant first noticed a problem with weights in December 2002. Defendant discovered that an outgoing truck full of unbagged seeds was underweight, and it added additional seed to the load to make it compliant. Shepherd attested that a random check of bags in the warehouse to determine if there was an ongoing problem was "inconclusive."
¶ 6 On February 10, 2003, inspectors from the Illinois Department of Agriculture (Department) showed up to investigate a complaint of underweight seed bags. During the investigation, the Department found some low-weight bags and entered a stop-sale order. Shepherd attested that defendant fully cooperated with the investigation and instituted its own quality control actions. The Department would not reveal the source of the complaint. On February 20, 2003, the Department lifted the stop-sale order and ended the investigation without issuing a penalty or fine.
¶ 7 Plaintiffs offer a different interpretation of events. For example, in his deposition, Kluemke described reporting his discovery of an underweight truckload to assistant manager Matt Alcorn in December 2002. Alcorn told Kluemke to add seed to the load, but Kluemke testified that the problem "went on for another two months where they went out and checked and weighed bags and they were all light." Similarly, Michael testified, "[W]e were running light on every load." Shawn Dudley, another employee of defendant, testified in his deposition that he, along with Hohman, reported an underweight load and was told by management that the scales had not been checked in five years but that the problem would be corrected. Dudley testified that he stated, "Ain't that kind of wrong?" Defendant contends that Dudley's employment was later terminated for playing a dangerous prank with a forklift. Dudley was fired in January 2003.
¶ 8 Dudley called Kluemke sometime after being fired and stated that if he did not get unemployment benefits, he was going to call the State. Kluemke described the initial conversation with Dudley:
"Q. [Attorney for plaintiffs:] And what was your response?
A. I told him, I said, 'Have at it.' I said, 'Somebody's got to do something.' Q. Did you tell him you'd assist him in any way?
A. No at that time probably I didn't, no.
Q. If that was your opinion that he should have at it, why didn't ...