Illinois Court Affirms Dismissal of Terminated Employee’s Retaliatory Discharge and Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress Claims

Terminating an employee can be a difficult thing for an employer. It can become even more difficult if the former employee decides to sue her former employer. An Illinois appellate court recently addressed such a situation and ultimately found that the trial court had properly granted summary judgment in favor of the employer on the former employee’s claims of retaliatory discharge and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The plaintiff, Rita DiPietro began working for GATX Corporation, a Chicago-based equipment finance company, in July 2016 as a customer service representative. During her employment, the plaintiff took sick leave occasionally to care for her mother. Her manager told her to record this time off in the company’s timekeeping program. The program only accepted time recorded in half-day increments. As a consequence, even when the plaintiff took leave of fewer than four hours, the timekeeping program would reflect that she had taken four hours of leave.

When the plaintiff discussed the issue of the timekeeping program overstating the amount of sick time she had used, her manager allegedly told her to continue using the system to track her leave time. The plaintiff later complained about the sick time issue to both her manager’s manager and someone in the human resources department. She allegedly asked that her manager not be informed about the complaints because her manager had warned her not to complain to human resources or her manager’s manager about the issue. Nonetheless, her manager was informed of the plaintiff’s complaints.

Upon learning that the plaintiff had gone over her head, the plaintiff’s manager allegedly began contacting the plaintiff’s coworkers to question them about the plaintiff, seeking negative information that could be used to justify terminating the plaintiff. Approximately six weeks after making her complaint to HR and her manager’s manager, the plaintiff was terminated.

When the plaintiff requested a copy of her personnel file from GATX, it allegedly contained handwritten notes from the plaintiff’s manager that falsely documented counseling sessions with the plaintiff and back-dated documents that purported to criticize the plaintiff. The plaintiff denied that her manager or anyone else told her that her performance was deficient, counseled her in any respect, or took away any of her responsibilities. Instead, she asserted that she frequently received praise from upper management and attached emails representing a portion of those accolades to her pleadings. She also pointed to the fact that she received a rating of “solid achievement” on her only performance review and was given an above-average performance bonus in response.

On appeal from a grant of summary judgment in favor of GATX, the appellate court addressed whether the plaintiff’s termination could be deemed as retaliation for her complaints about the company’s timekeeping program or whether it supported a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress. The appellate court affirmed the trial court on both rulings.

In examining the retaliatory discharge claim, the Court began its analysis by stating the general rule that employment in Illinois is generally considered at-will, meaning that the employer is free to terminate the employee for any or no reason at all. Nonetheless, the Court explained, a terminated employee can state a claim for retaliatory discharge by establishing that she was terminated in retaliation for her activities and such termination “violates clearly mandated public policy.” The Court held that her termination did not violate public policy because GATX’s leave policy did not violate the Employee Sick Leave Act.

Turning to the plaintiff’s IIED claim, the Court identified the elements of an IIED claim: (1) the defendant’s conduct was extreme and outrageous, (2) the defendant intended his conduct to cause severe emotional distress or knew that there was a high probability that his conduct would cause severe emotional distress, and (3) the defendant’s conduct did, in fact, cause severe emotional distress to the plaintiff. While the Court acknowledged that sometimes an employer-employee relationship can aggravate the nature of the conduct, it also explained that courts are hesitant to characterize typical employer-employee interactions as extreme and outrageous. “Because employers must often take actions in the course of business that cause emotional distress,” the Court explained, “liability for a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress in the employment context will only be found where the conduct is truly egregious.” After analyzing the facts established by the parties on summary judgment, the Court determined that the plaintiff failed to establish that her termination was anything other than “an everyday situation in employment relationship[]” and as such was “not truly egregious.”

The Court’s full opinion is available here.

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