NO IMMUNITY FOR ILLINOIS PARK DISTRICT IN RETALIATORY DISCHARGE CASE
The Illinois Supreme Court recently handed down an important retaliatory discharge decision in Smith v. Waukegan Park District. The facts are pretty straightforward – Greg Smith worked as a seasonal park maintenance employee for the Waukegan Park District. On May 8, 2002, Smith suffered a work-related injury requiring medical treatment and some time away from work.
On June 24, 2002, Smith returned to work. The Park District, in the person of Smith’s supervisor, Mike Trigg, insisted on a drug and alchohol test, which Smith refused. Smith felt the testing was “retaliatory harassment” for filing a Workers’ Comp claim. Trigg then informed Smith that he was discharged, supposedly for his failure to take the drug and alchohol test. Smith then filed his retaliatory discharge claim. The Park District moved to dismiss the case under the Illinois Tort Immunity Act. The trial court granted the motion. The Appellate Court upheld the dismissal. The plaintiff then appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court.
The Park District had two primary immunity arguments. First, the Park District asserted it was immune from Smith’s retaliatory claim under 2-109 of the Illinois Tort Immunity Act. Section 2-109 of the Act provides immunity to local public entities when the entity’s employee could not be held liable for the act or omission that caused the alleged injury. The Park District made that argument relying upon Buckner v. Atlantic Plant Maintenance, Inc. In Buckner, the Supreme Court held that even if an employee hatches the plan to fire the employee, the actual discharge is authorized by the employer. The Buckner Court further explained that the motive for a firing in light of a Worker’ Comp claim – avoidance of employee medical bills and related expense – go to the employer, and not the employee. Based on those findings the Buckner court held that the tort of retaliatory discharge could only be committed by an employer. The Park District, argued[in a somewhat circular argument]that since Buckner precluded any liability on the part of the supervisor, under 2-109, the District could not be liable.
The Supreme Court in Smith, though, wasted little time in disposing of the Park District’s first argument. The Court pointed out that the Smith’s supervisor hadn’t caused the discharge – the District did. Therefore, 2-109 does not apply in retaliatory discharge cases because the employer, not the employee, causes the harm. As a result, the District was not immune from a retaliatory claim.
The District also argued that it enjoyed immunity under 2-201 of the Tort Immunity Act. Section 2-201 provides that a public employee serving in a position involving the determination of policy or the exercise of discretion is not liable for an injury resulting from his act or ommission in determining policy when exercising that discretion. In shooting the District’s second argument down, the Court held the public employees possess no immunized discretion to discharge employees for exercising their Workers’ Compensation rights.
The Supreme Court reversed the judgments of the Appellate and trial courts and remanded the case back to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with the Court’s opinion.