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Rehfield v. Diocese of Joliet

Court of Appeals of Illinois, Third District

December 10, 2019

MARY REHFIELD, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
DIOCESE OF JOLIET, Defendant-Appellee.

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of the 12th Judicial Circuit, Will County, Illinois, Circuit No. 17-L-1000 Honorable Raymond E. Rossi, Judge, Presiding.

          JUSTICE HOLDRIDGE delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Presiding Justice Schmidt and Justice Carter concur in the judgment and opinion.

          OPINION

          HOLDRIDGE, JUSTICE

         ¶ 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.

         ¶ 2 FACTS

         ¶ 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 complaint.

         ¶ 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 highest potential.

         ¶ 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.

         ¶ 6 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.

         ¶ 7 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.

         ¶ 8 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 Rehfield's termination.

         ¶ 11 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.

         ¶ 12 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.

         ¶ 13 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 alternative employment but was unsuccessful. Given her age, she did not anticipate being able to find another job.

         ¶ 14 In December 2017, the Diocese filed a combined motion to dismiss Rehfield's complaint. The Diocese argued, pursuant to section 2-615 of the Code of Civil Procedure (Code) (735 ILCS 5/2-615 (West 2016)), Rehfield's complaint for retaliatory discharge should be dismissed because her employment was pursuant to an employment contract and retaliatory discharge claims are only available to at-will employees. Second, under section 2-619(a)(9) of the Code (735 ILCS 5/2-619(a)(9) (West 2016)), the Diocese again reiterated that Rehfield was a contractual employee and not able to claim retaliatory discharge. The Diocese also argued that Rehfield's complaint should be dismissed pursuant to the doctrine of ecclesiastical abstention because she was employed in a ministerial role, and for that reason, the Diocese had the discretion to manage and terminate her employment without court interference.

         ¶ 15 Attached to the Diocese's combined motion to dismiss were affidavits from Father Bachner and Nancy Siemers, the director of human resources for the Diocese. Father Bachner's affidavit provided that Rehfield was a contractual employee and she was never an employee at-will. Each of Rehfield's employment contracts specified duration of time, compensation, and other terms of the agreement. During the 2016-2017 school year, when he relieved Rehfield of her employment responsibilities, she was under contract. The 2016-2017 contract ran from July 1, 2016, through June 30, 2017. Rehfield was terminated on June 9, 2017. However, St. Raphael Parish continued to pay Rehfield all compensation under the ...


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