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.
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.
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
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 ...