Examples of Public Policy Exceptions in Illinois
In several cases addressing potential "public policy" exceptions to the employment at-will doctrine in Illinois, the Illinois Supreme Court has identified several examples of what does not constitute "clear mandates" of public policy. For example, general concepts like "patient safety," "right to marry" a coworker, "product safety," "promoting quality healthcare," and "the Hippocratic Oath" have been declared insufficient to support a claim for retaliatory termination in violation of public policy. Turner v. Mem'l Med. Ctr., [LexisNexis: "911 N.E.2d 369"] (Ill. 2009).
However, some district courts have carved out examples of actionable public policy in this context. In Daoust v. Abbott Labs, [LexisNexis: "2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 2138"] (N.D. Ill. 2007), an Illinois district court ruled that "Illinois has a clearly mandated public policy toward protecting its citizens from all forms of violence, including violence that occurs in the workplace."
In Ziccarelli v. Phillips, [LexisNexis: "2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 137012"] (N.D. Ill. 2013), an Illinois district court agreed that "workplace safety" was a clearly-mandated public policy in Illinois, and that an employee who was allegedly discharged after complaining about physically threatening behavior by another employee could make a claim for retaliatory discharge in violation of public policy.
Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress
Courts often hesitate to find intentional infliction of emotional distress claims in favor of employees against their current or former employer, meaning this is a very difficult claim to prove in Illinois courts. Graham v. Commonwealth Edison Co., [LexisNexis: "742 N.E.2d 858"] (Ill. App. 1st Dist. 2000).
However, employees may sue their employer when the employer causes emotional distress. The employee has to prove:
- The employer acted extremely and outrageously;
- The employer knew or should have known that its conduct would cause severe emotional distress; and
- The conduct caused the employee's emotional distress.
The conduct has to be more outrageous than insults or minor annoyances, and the damage the employee experiences must be something more than humiliation, shame or grief. Welsh v. Commonwealth Edison Co., [LexisNexis: "713 N.E.2d 679"] (Ill. App. 1st Dist. 1999).
In Milton v. Illinois Bell Tel. Co., [LexisNexis: "427 N.E.2d 829"] (Ill. App. 1981) the court found that the employee could prove intentional infliction of emotional distress when the employer demanded that he falsify records and terminated him for failing to do so.
Illinois law occasionally enforces gratuitous promises, even though there may not be a formal employment contract. In employment law, an employer can be bound to a promise to an employee when an employee reasonably relies on the promise. Geva v. Leo Burnett Co., Inc., [LexisNexis: "931 F.2d 1220"] (7th Cir. 1991).
Thus, employers should not make promises to employees about the employees' future. Employers should avoid making verbal or written statements in the following forms:
- You have nothing to worry about;
- You can work for as long as you wish; and/or
- You can have the job until you retire or no longer want it;
Using such terms may provide the employee with an enforceable promise. Taylor v. Canteen Corp., [LexisNexis: "931 F.2d 1220"] (7th Cir. 1995)
Illinois recognizes verbal contracts, so long as there is a clear and definite promise. Employers may put offers of employment in writing to avoid misunderstandings. However, such offers should have the requisite language concerning employment at-will and language disclaiming contractual obligations.
Handbook provisions may modify the employment at-will doctrine when:
- There is clear language that the employer is making an offer to an employee;
- The employee is aware of the offer's contents and reasonably believes the employer is making an offer; and
- The employee accepts the offer.
The employee can accept the offer by beginning work or continuing to work.
Employers should avoid:
- Including language in their handbooks such as "employees are never dismissed without notice;" and
- Promising that specific disciplinary steps will occur before termination without a disclaimer that explains the employer may bypass any disciplinary steps at any time, at its discretion.
Additionally, employers should have:
- A clear at-will statement and disclaimer stating that the handbook is not a contract;
- An written warning stating the employer is permitted to change its policies; and
- Explicit written language explaining that the handbook does not modify the employment-at-will doctrine.
Duldulao v. St. Mary of Nazareth Hospital Center, [LexisNexis: "505 N.E.2d 314"] (Ill. 1987).
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