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Stevenson v. FedEx Ground Package System, Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

September 24, 2014

JOENATHAN STEVENSON, Plaintiff,
v.
FEDEX GROUND PACKAGE SYSTEM, INC., a Delaware corporation, Defendant

For Joenathan Stevenson, Plaintiff: Meredith Walsh Buckley, Malkinson & Halpern, Chicago, IL; Seth Robert Halpern Malkinson & Halpern, P.C., Chicago, IL.

For FedEx Ground Package System, Inc., a Delaware Corporation, Defendant: James Daniel Helenhouse, LEAD ATTORNEY, Stephen J. Rynn, Fletcher & Sippel, LLC, Chicago, IL; Joseph Peter McHugh, FedEx Ground Package System, Inc., Pittsburgh, PA.

Page 793

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

John J. Tharp, United States District Judge.

This retaliatory discharge action presents the question of whether under Illinois law an employer may impose an advance notification requirement on employees who seek medical treatment following a workplace injury. Plaintiff Joenathan Stevenson alleges that his former employer FedEx Ground Package System, Incorporated (" FedEx" ) unlawfully terminated his employment in retaliation for asserting his rights under the Illinois Workers' Compensation Act, 820 ILCS 305 (" IWCA" ), after he obtained medical treatment without first notifying the company. The Court concludes that IWCA does not permit employers to impose such a requirement and, accordingly, grants Stevenson's motion for judgment on the pleadings and denies FedEx's motion for summary judgment.

BACKGROUND

Although the parties dispute some of the details, there is no dispute about the basic facts necessary to address the legal issue presented in the parties' competing motions. Defendant FedEx employed Plaintiff Joenathan Stevenson as a package handler from February 2007 to January 2011. As of January 2011, Stevenson was subject to a FedEx company policy that required immediate reporting of workplace injuries whether they required only minor first aid or professional medical treatment.[1] In addition, FedEx policy required that employees wishing to seek professional medical treatment for a workplace injury first attempt to provide advance notice to management. Under this company policy, failure to notify management before seeking professional medical care could subject the employee to termination.

On January 6, 2011, Stevenson reported to supervisors that he was suffering from a sore back. FedEx generated a First Aid/Injury Report and placed Stevenson on light duty to accommodate his condition. He did not request or seek medical treatment at that time. After working light duty on January 7, 8, 10, 11, and 12, Stevenson sought medical treatment for his back on the morning of January 13. The physician assistant (" PA" ) who examined him provided a " Certificate to Return to Work," which cleared Stevenson to return to work on January 14 and also stated: " Please keep patient on light duty/off truck work until he can have a functional capacity eval done with physical therapy to see exactly what his limitations are." Stevenson began his next shift, as previously scheduled, at 10:30 p.m. on January 13 and worked until about 7:00 a.m., and worked light duty (as FedEx had not yet returned him to regular duty). At the end of his shift, Stevenson presented the note from the PA, thereby notifying FedEx that he had already sought and received medical care for the January 6 incident. Citing the company policy that required advance notice before seeking medical treatment for a prior workplace injury, FedEx terminated Stevenson's employment.

Stevenson then brought a retaliatory discharge action, under Illinois law, in the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois. On January 8, 2013, FedEx removed this action to this Court and Stevenson did not

Page 794

contest removal. Diversity exists because Stevenson is a citizen of Illinois, and FedEx is a Delaware corporation whose principal place of business is in Pennsylvania. Further, the Court cannot say that there is no basis under which the amount in controversy here would not exceed the jurisdictional minimum. See, e.g., Meridian Sec. Ins. Co. v. Sadowski, 441 F.3d 536, 541 (7th Cir. 2006). The plaintiff's state law complaint sought damages " in excess of $50,000," accrued damages for several years following a termination of employment could exceed the jurisdictional minimum, and each of the parties asserts a good faith belief that the amount in controversy in this case exceeds $75,000.

DISCUSSION

Under Illinois law, it is unlawful for an employer to terminate an employee in retaliation for exercising a right guaranteed by the Illinois Workers' Compensation Act, 820 ILCS 305 (" IWCA" ). See 820 ILCS 305/4(h) (prohibiting employers from interfering with an employee's exercise of IWCA rights or from discharging employees because of the exercise of IWCA rights); Kelsay v. Motorola, 74 Ill.2d 172, 185, 384 N.E.2d 353, 358-59, 23 Ill.Dec. 559 (Ill. 1978) (establishing a private cause of action for retaliatory discharge of an employee who files a Workers' Compensation claim); Hinthorn v. Roland's of Bloomington, Inc., 119 Ill.2d 526, 533, 519 N.E.2d 909, 913, 116 Ill.Dec. 694 (Ill. 1988) (clarifying that the retaliatory discharge tort also applies to seeking medical care under IWCA, not just to the filing of a Workers' Compensation claim). This is an exception to the general rule in Illinois that employers may terminate at-will employees for any or no reason. Kelsay, 74 Ill.2d at 181, 384 N.E.2d at 357. For claims alleging retaliatory discharge for the exercise of IWCA rights, the plaintiff employee must prove (1) his status as an employee of the defendant; (2) his exercise of a right granted by IWCA, and (3) a causal relationship between his discharge and the exercise of that right. Gordon v. FedEx Freight, Inc., 674 F.3d 769, 773 (7th Cir. 2012) (citing Roger v. Yellow Freight Systems, Inc., 21 F.3d 146, 149 (7th Cir. 1994)); see also Clemons v. Mechanical Devices Co., 184 Ill.2d 328, 336, 704 N.E.2d 403, 406, 235 Ill.Dec. 54 (Ill. 1998) (stating the same three-element test for contexts where the IWCA right asserted is the right to file a Workers' Compensation claim).[2]

In this case, the parties agree that Stevenson was a FedEx employee and that a causal relationship exists between Stevenson's actions and Stevenson's termination. They simply disagree about whether all of his actions were protected. FedEx concedes that IWCA protects Stevenson's actions in seeking medical care from his ...


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