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Michael v. Precision Alliance Group, LLC

Supreme Court of Illinois

December 4, 2014

WAYNE MICHAEL et al., Appellees,
v.
PRECISION ALLIANCE GROUP, LLC, Appellant

Appellate court judgment reversed. Circuit court judgment affirmed.

SYLLABUS

Judgment for defendant employer was proper in an action for the tort of retaliatory discharge where, although plaintiff employees made out a prima facie case in that they were terminated shortly after reporting the employer's alleged legal violations in shipping underweight seed bags and the judge referred to this as " causal nexus," nevertheless plaintiffs failed in their burden of proving causation where the employer responded with valid, nonpretextual reasons for the discharges which were believed by the trier of fact.

Julie L. Gottshall and Laura D. Waller, of Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP, of Chicago, for appellant.

Ferne P. Wolf and Joshua M. Pierson, of Sowers & Wolf, LLC, of St. Louis, Missouri, and Christopher B. Daniels, of Salem, for appellees.

Craig L. Unrath, of Heyl, Royster, Voelker & Allen, of Peoria, for amicus curiae Illinois Association of Defense Trial Counsel.

Lee Barron, of Alton, and J. Bryan Wood, of Chicago, for amicus curiae National Employment Lawyers Association-Illinois.

JUSTICE BURKE delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Chief Justice Garman and Justices Freeman, Thomas, Kilbride, Karmeier, and Theis concurred in the judgment and opinion.

OPINION

Page 1184

BURKE, JUSTICE

[¶1] The plaintiffs, Wayne Michael, Alan Hohman and Craig Kluemke, filed a retaliatory discharge lawsuit against the defendant, Precision Alliance Group, LLC, alleging they were discharged in retaliation for reporting defendant to the State of Illinois for shipping underweight product. Following a bench trial, the circuit court of Washington County entered judgment in favor of defendant. The appellate court reversed the judgment of the circuit court and remanded the matter for a determination of damages. 2014 IL App. (5th) 120517-U. For the reasons that follow, we reverse the judgment of the appellate court and affirm the judgment of the circuit court.

[¶2] BACKGROUND

[¶3] The following facts were introduced at trial. Defendant is an agricultural supply business dealing in soybean seeds. Defendant grows, conditions, packages, and distributes soybean seeds for commercial agricultural use. It packages seed in 50-pound and 2,000-pound bags.

[¶4] Plaintiffs worked at defendant's facility in Nashville, Illinois, from 1998 to 2003. Hohman worked on the bagging line and was responsible for insuring proper weights, lot numbers, seed count, and dates. Kluemke worked in the bagging room and then the warehouse and was responsible for taking product off the line, moving it to various places around the warehouse, and staging the product for shipment. Michael worked in the warehouse and in shipping.

[¶5] During the time plaintiffs were employed by defendant, approximately 20 laborers and 4 on-site management staff members worked at the Nashville facility. The management staff consisted of general manager Gary Shepherd, assistant plant manager Matt Alcorn, conditioning and safety manager Terry Weier, and field service manager Steven Mauer.

[¶6] The events underlying this lawsuit began in late 2002. At that time, defendant began experiencing a problem with underweight seed bags. Illinois law requires that every bag labeled as containing a certain weight of seeds actually weigh that amount. In December of 2002, defendant discovered that an outgoing load of seed was underweight. Additional seed was added to the load to make it compliant. Thereafter, defendant randomly checked bags in the warehouse to determine if there was an ongoing problem. In one of the checks, the majority of the bags were compliant but some were light by as much as 20 pounds. One of defendant's employees testified that the underweight bags were segregated and not shipped, while another stated they were put back in the lot. Conflicting testimony was also presented as to who decided not to test additional bags to determine the extent of the weight problem.

[¶7] In January 2003, an employee who worked on the bagging line, Shawn Dudley, was terminated for engaging in horseplay. According to the evidence presented

Page 1185

at trial, Dudley placed a block of sticky notes to hold down the brake of a forklift so that when the forklift was turned on and put in gear, it would not move. Dudley ...


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