[Copyrighted Material Omitted]
from the Circuit Court of Will County, No. 17-L-1000; the
Hon. Raymond E. Rossi, Judge, presiding.
B. Porter and Kyle A. Palazzolo, of Salvatore Prescott &
Porter, PLLC, of Evanston, for appellant.
Nicholas Anaclerio Jr. and Caralyn M. Olie, of Vedder Price
P.C., of Chicago, for appellee.
¶ 1 In
2012, the plaintiff, Mary Rehfield, was hired by the
defendant, Diocese of Joliet, as the principal of St. Raphael
Catholic School. In 2017, the Diocese terminated Rehfield
following a number of issues that arose with a parent of a
student. Rehfield filed a two-count complaint against the
Diocese alleging retaliatory discharge and violation of the
Whistleblower Act (740 ILCS 174/1 et seq. (West
2016)). The Diocese filed a combined motion to dismiss, which
the trial court granted. Rehfield appeals.
¶ 3 In
November 2017, Rehfield filed an action against the Diocese
initially only alleging a single count of retaliatory
discharge. The following relevant facts were set forth in her
¶ 4 In
2012, Rehfield was hired as the principal of St. Raphael
Catholic School, which was operated by St. Raphael Parish, an
agent of the Diocese. Rehfield reported to Father Daniel
Bachner, an ordained Roman Catholic priest and pastor of St.
Raphael Parish. Beginning with Rehfield's employment in
2012, Rehfield and the Diocese entered into one-year
employment contracts. Rehfield's annual reviews stated
that she was a good communicator, worked well with others,
and invited and expected an atmosphere to reach one's
¶ 5 In
January 2016, a teacher at the school was contacted by the
mother of one of her students and was told the student was
being bullied. The teacher addressed
the issue and believed the issue was resolved. Soon
thereafter, the teacher received an email from the same
student's father, William MacKinnon, wherein he wanted
the teacher to ensure that his daughter was no longer being
bullied. The teacher found the email to be rude in tone, but
not threatening, and notified Rehfield of the correspondence.
Rehfield notified Father Bachner of the email. Father Bachner
advised Rehfield to respond to MacKinnon directly and ask
that all future communication be directed to Rehfield in a
collegial manner. Rehfield complied with Father Bachner's
direction. MacKinnon responded to Rehfield and apologized for
the tone of his email.
Soon thereafter, MacKinnon sent several additional emails to
the same teacher. The teacher informed Rehfield of these
emails. Rehfield perceived the emails as a potential threat.
Rehfield consulted Father Bachner, and with his approval,
notified the police of MacKinnon's communication. The
police concluded that no further action was warranted at that
time. One month later, Rehfield received what she perceived
to be a threatening email from MacKinnon and notified the
police. Under the advice of the police, Rehfield, with Father
Bachner's approval, distributed a photo of MacKinnon to
faculty and staff at the school with instructions to call the
police if MacKinnon was seen on campus.
Nearly a year later, in February 2017, Father Bachner
received a voicemail from MacKinnon. The voicemail was
several minutes long and described as a rant concerning
priests and the church. The threat in the voicemail was
directed toward Father Bachner. When Rehfield learned of the
voicemail, she contacted the police and requested that they
review the matter. As a result, the police issued an arrest
warrant for MacKinnon.
Following the issuance of the arrest warrant, Rehfield
consulted with Father Bachner, superintendent Father John
Belmonte, and the police. Based on these communications,
Rehfield again distributed a photograph of MacKinnon to staff
at the school and informed them to call the police if they
saw him. Rehfield also distributed the photograph to staff at
the church, telling them the same. The police and Father
Bachner advised Rehfield that it was unnecessary and
inappropriate to communicate about the matter with parents
under the circumstances.
¶ 9 Due
to the public nature of the issuance of the arrest warrant,
the local press obtained information about MacKinnon's
actions through public records. In May 2017, the Naperville
Sun ran a story called "Man vowed to `terrorize'
Naperville school: authorities." The story inaccurately
stated, among other things, that MacKinnon left the message
for Rehfield and that the message contained threats to
terrorize the school and its staff. Concerned parents
contacted Rehfield and others associated with the school.
After consulting with Father Bachner, Father Belmonte, and
others, Rehfield sent a letter to parents explaining the
situation with MacKinnon.
¶ 10 An
open meeting was scheduled to address this situation with
parents. Before the meeting, Rehfield, Father Bachner, Father
Belmonte, assistant principal Jen Timmons, Diocese
administrator Mike Bava, and Diocese attorney Maureen Harton
discussed the agenda for the open meeting and the message
Rehfield should relay to parents. The open meeting was
described as volatile, explosive, and aggressive toward
Rehfield. Some parents expressed anger that they were not
informed of the situation earlier and some called for
In June 2017, the Diocese terminated Rehfield's
employment contract for the remainder of the 2016-2017 school
year and notified Rehfield that she would not be able to lead
the school the following year even though she had already
accepted a contract for the 2017-2018 school year. Rehfield
was shocked at the Diocese's actions. Rehfield alleged
that Father Bachner agreed that she would remain principal at
the school until she turned 70 years old. At the time
Rehfield filed her complaint, she was 66 years old.
Rehfield argued that she consistently consulted with the
Diocese regarding the correct action to taken in response to
MacKinnon, but despite the approval she received to take
action and contact the police, the Diocese unlawfully
retaliated against her when the information became public.
She believed her actions were necessary under the law and to
protect her students. Rehfield also argued other staff and
faculty members were likely to be more reluctant to come
forward and report potentially unlawful or criminal conduct.
Rehfield alleged that she suffered significant financial and
emotional distress and feared she might not be able to find
new employment in light of her termination. Her doctor
prescribed her anxiety medication and recommended that she
regularly see a psychologist. Rehfield had serious concerns
about how she would meet her and her husband's medical
needs. She attempted to secure ...