Appellate court reversed; circuit court affirmed in part and reversed in part.
MR. JUSTICE RYAN delivered the opinion of the court:
Plaintiff, Marilyn Jo Kelsay, filed a complaint in the circuit court of Livingston County, seeking compensatory and punitive damages against her ex-employer, Motorola, Inc. The plaintiff alleged that her employment with defendant had been terminated as retaliation for her filing a workmen's compensation claim. The trial court directed a verdict in plaintiff's favor and the jury assessed damages in the amount of $1,000 compensatory damages and $25,000 punitive damages. The court remitted the compensatory damages to $749, which represents the wages plaintiff lost between the time she was discharged and the time she found a new job. On appeal, the Fourth District Appellate Court reversed the judgment of the trial court, holding that an employee has no cause of action against an employer for retaliatory discharge. (51 Ill.App.3d 1016.) Because a different panel of the same court reached a contrary result in an opinion filed on the same day (Leach v. Lauhoff Grain Co. (1977), 51 Ill.App.3d 1022), the appellate court issued a certificate of importance to this court (see 58 Ill.2d R. 316) so that we may resolve the conflict.
Plaintiff suffered a cut to her thumb while working at the Motorola factory in Pontiac. She received immediate medical attention at a local hospital, where her thumb was stitched. She returned to work later that same afternoon. Shortly thereafter, plaintiff sought advice of
Plaintiff spoke with the personnel manager at the Motorola plant, Donald Aherns, after he received notice of the workmen's compensation suit. Aherns told plaintiff that the corporation was aware of the situation, that she would be "more than adequately compensat[ed]" by the corporation for her thumb injury, and that there was no need for her to follow through with her claim. He also informed the plaintiff that it was the corporation's policy to terminate the employment of employees who pursued workmen's compensation claims against it, and advised the plaintiff to "think about it" a little longer. Plaintiff, however, decided to proceed with her claim and, after informing Aherns of her final decision, was discharged. Her compensation claim against Motorola was eventually settled. Subsequently, as noted above, plaintiff sought relief in the Livingston County circuit court against defendant, Motorola, for her retaliatory discharge by the corporation.
This appeal raises several issues. First, should this State recognize a cause of action for retaliatory discharge? If so, is such an action one which may give rise to a claim for punitive damages, and, if so, was the jury's award of $25,000 punitive damages proper in the instant case?
The employer argues that no cause of action should exist in this State for the retaliatory discharge of an employee. He contends that, as of the time of plaintiff's discharge, there was nothing in the Workmen's Compensation Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1973, ch. 48, par. 138.1 et seq.) that impinged on the employer's unfettered right to terminate without cause an employee whose employment contract was at will. Further, the employer argues that recognition of a cause of action for retaliatory discharge is totally inconsistent with the exclusivity provision of the
Finally, the employer argues that the legislature's decision to provide solely for criminal punishment of employers who, after 1975, "discharge or * * * threaten to discharge * * * an employee because of the exercise of his rights or remedies granted to him by [the] Act" (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1975, ch. 48, par. 138.4(h)), without providing for a civil remedy for employees who are so discharged, precludes the plaintiff's action in the instant case.
The Workmen's Compensation Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1973, ch. 48, par. 138.1 et seq.) substitutes an entirely new system of rights, remedies, and procedure for all previously existing common law rights and liabilities between employers and employees subject to the Act for accidental injuries or death of employees arising out of and in the course of the employment. (37 Ill. L. & Prac. Workmen's Compensation sec. 2 (1958).) Pursuant to the statutory scheme implemented by the Act, the employee gave up his common law rights to sue his employer in tort, but recovery for injuries arising out of and in the course of his employment became automatic without regard to any fault on his part. The employer, who gave up the right to plead the numerous common law defenses, was compelled to pay, but his liability became fixed under a strict and comprehensive statutory scheme, and was not subjected to the sympathies of jurors whose compassion for fellow employees often led to high recovery. (See 81 Am.Jur.2d Workmen's Compensation sec. 1 et seq. (1976).) This trade-off between employer and employee promoted the fundamental purpose of the Act, which was to afford protection to employees by providing them with prompt and equitable
The Workmen's Compensation Act, in light of its beneficent purpose, is a humane law of a remedial nature. (Shell Oil Co. v. Industrial Com. (1954), 2 Ill.2d 590.) It provides for efficient remedies for and protection of employees and, as such, promotes the general welfare of this State. Consequently, its enactment by the legislature was in furtherance of sound public policy. (Deibeikis v. Link-Belt Co. (1914), 261 Ill. 454.) We are convinced that to uphold and implement this public policy a cause of action should exist for retaliatory discharge.
While noting that in 1975, subsequent to plaintiff's discharge, the Workmen's Compensation Act was amended making it unlawful for an employer to interfere with or to coerce the employee in the exercise of his rights under the Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1975, ch. 48, par. 138.4(h)), the employer argues that as of the time of plaintiff's discharge, the legislature had neither prohibited nor provided for any remedy for a discharge resulting from the filing of a workmen's compensation claim. As such, its authority to terminate the employee, whose contract was at will, was absolute. In this regard he cites various statutes in which the legislature has seen fit to limit the employer's right to discharge (the wage assignment act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1975, ch. 48, par. 39.11), the Service Men's Employment Tenure Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1973, ch. 126 1/2, par. 33), and the Fair Employment Practices Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1973, ch. 48, par. 851 et seq.)), and correctly notes that none of these limitations are applicable to the instant case.
We are not convinced that an employer's otherwise absolute power to terminate an employee at will should prevail when that power is exercised to prevent the employee from asserting his statutory rights under the Workmen's Compensation Act. As we have noted, the legislature enacted the workmen's compensation law as a
We recognize that the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has reached a contrary conclusion in construing the Illinois Workmen's Compensation Act. In Loucks v. Star City Glass Co. (7th Cir.1977), 551 F.2d 745, the court considered the question without the benefit of any prior decision of this court on the question involved and held that inasmuch as the legislature had not provided for a prohibition against retaliatory discharge, the employer was free to exercise its traditional right to discharge at will. Decisions of the Federal courts in construing statutes of this State are not binding on this court. For the reasons above stated, we believe that the construction adopted in Loucks contravenes the public policy of this State.
Two recent cases in other States have held that an employee has a cause of action against an employer for retaliatory discharge. Frampton v. Central Indiana Gas Co. (1973), 260 Ind. 249, 297 N.E.2d 425, and Sventko v. Kroger Co. (1976), 69 Mich.App. 644, 245 N.W.2d 151.
In Frampton, the plaintiff had been injured on the job, and received workmen's compensation. Later, she
Similarly, in Sventko, the plaintiff was discharged for filing a workmen's compensation claim against her employer. The Michigan Appellate Court, in holding that the employee should have an action for retaliatory discharge, stated that an "employer at will is not free to discharge an employee when the reason for the discharge is an intention on the part of the employer to contravene the public policy of [the] state." 69 Mich.App. 644, 647, 245 N.W.2d 151, 153.
There are decisions of other State courts that have held to the contrary (see Annot., 63 A.L.R.3d 979, 983 (1975)). We believe, however, that the reasoning in Frampton and Sventko is persuasive and conforms with the public policy expressed by the legislature in our workmen's compensation act. Concerning the decision of Frampton v. Central Indiana Gas Co., we agree with the comment of Professor A. Larson that "[i]t is odd that such a decision was so long in coming." (2A A. Larson, Workmen's Compensation sec. 68.36 (Supp. 1978).) We do not agree with the employer's argument that Frampton is distinguishable from the instant case because the Indiana Supreme Court "placed express reliance on Indiana's statutory language prohibiting any `device' to circumvent employers' liabilities under the Act," (Loucks v. Star City Glass Co. (7th Cir.1977), 551 F.2d 745, 748), and
The employer argues that the exclusivity provision of section 11 of the Act, which provides that the provisions of the Act "shall be the measure of the responsibility of any employer" (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1973, ch. 48, par. 138.11) precludes an action for retaliatory discharge. Motorola argues that this conclusion is compelled because the section clearly shows that the legislature intended that the Act should be exclusive in providing for employees' rights and remedies. We do not agree. First, that section was meant to limit recovery by employees to the extent provided by the Act in regard to work-related injuries, and was not intended to insulate the employer from independent tort actions. Second, we cannot accept a construction of section 11 which would allow employers to put employees in a position of choosing between their jobs and seeking their remedies under the Act. As we have already discussed, to prevent such anomalous results it is necessary to allow an action for retaliatory discharge. It would be illogical to bar the action on the basis of language of the Act itself, the fundamental purpose of which is to ensure rights and remedies to employees who have compensable claims. Accordingly, we feel it is improper to interpret section 11 in the manner suggested by the employer.
The employer argues that the absence of any provisions
In Teale v. Sears, Roebuck & Co. (1976), 66 Ill.2d 1, this court held that a discharged employee had no cause of action for compensatory and punitive damages for discharge from employment in violation of what was referred to as the "Age Discrimination Act" (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1975, ch. 48, pars. 881 to 887). In that case the Act did not specifically authorize a civil action for damages, but it did provide for a criminal penalty for a violation of the Act. However, this court found within the language of the Act an "internal restriction [which] strongly militates against, if indeed it does not preclude, expansion of the statutory
We now consider the award of $25,000 punitive damages. In this connection, two points merit consideration, first, whether punitive damages may generally be awarded in cases for retaliatory discharge, and second, whether the jury's award for such damages was proper in the instant case.
It has long been established in this State that punitive or exemplary damages may be awarded when torts are committed with fraud, actual malice, deliberate violence or oppression, or when the defendant acts willfully, or with such gross negligence as to indicate a wanton disregard of the rights of others (Consolidated Coal Co. v. Haenni (1893), 146 Ill. 614). Where punitive damages may be assessed, they are allowed in the nature of punishment and as a warning and example to deter the defendant and others from committing like offenses in the future. (Eshelman v. Rawalt (1921), 298 Ill. 192, 197.) And, while the measurement of punitive damages is a jury question, the preliminary question of whether the facts of a particular case justify the imposition of punitive damages is properly one of law. Knierim v. Izzo (1961), 22 Ill.2d 73, 87.
In the absence of the deterrent effect of punitive damages there would be little to dissuade an employer from engaging in the practice of discharging an employee for filing a workmen's compensation claim. For example in this case, the plaintiff was entitled to only $749 compensatory damages. We noted above the very real possibility that some employers would risk the threat of criminal sanction in order to escape their responsibilities under the Act. The statute makes such conduct, as is involved in this
Contrary to the arguments presented by the defendant, there is no persuasive reason to totally rule out an award of punitive damages in an action for retaliatory discharge. The cases and authorities cited by defendant in support of his arguments are inapposite. Those cases and authorities recognize the generally accepted proposition that exemplary damages are not recoverable for wrongful discharge. (See, e.g., 56 C.J.S. Master and Servant sec. 58 (1948).) However, the validity of this proposition rests on the fact that such a cause of action sounds in contract (53 Am.Jur.2d Master and Servant sec. 63 (1970)), and traditionally actions for breach of contract have not given rise to claims for punitive damages (see 11 Williston, Contracts sec. 1340 (3d ed. 1968)). However, the general rule has no application where, as here, the cause of action is premised upon a separate and independent tort. (Ledingham v. Blue Cross Plan for Hospital Care of Hospital Service Corp. (1975), 29 Ill.App.3d 339, rev'd on other grounds (1976), 64 Ill.2d 338.) Under such circumstances, when the facts permit, punitive damages may be properly awarded.
However, under the facts of the present case, we are compelled to conclude that the award for $25,000 as punitive damages was improper. As we have noted, the
In this regard, we find the reasoning of Nees v. Hocks (1975), 272 Or. 210, 536 P.2d 512, persuasive. In that case, an employee who was dismissed because she went on jury duty brought an action against her employer for retaliatory discharge. The Supreme Court of Oregon sustained the cause of action and allowed the recovery of compensatory damages, but in denying recovery for punitive damages, held:
Similar considerations apply in the instant case. At the time of plaintiff's discharge there was no provision in the Act making it unlawful to discharge an employee for seeking relief under its provisions. Also, at that time there
In summary, the judgment of the appellate court denying plaintiff a cause of action for retaliatory discharge is reversed. Plaintiff's award in the amount of $749 compensatory damages by the trial court is affirmed, but the trial court's order for $25,000 punitive damages is reversed.
Appellate court reversed; circuit court affirmed in part and reversed in part.
MR. JUSTICE KLUCZYNSKI took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.
MR. JUSTICE UNDERWOOD, concurring in part and dissenting in part:
I write no brief for an employer who tells an industrially injured employee that the employee will be discharged if a claim for compensation is filed. Such statements, even when accompanied by assurances that all expenses connected with the injury will be paid, really do not appeal to one's sense of fairness. Plaintiff's arguments in favor of a cause of action for retaliatory discharges, if limited to compensatory damages, have considerable appeal, and such an action may well be a desirable remedy for such discharges. My disagreement with the majority stems from my belief that the merits of those arguments were clearly for the legislature to assess, the legislature did not adopt them, and the majority opinion in this case is, it seems to me, simply a substitution of the preferences of a majority of the members of this court for the considered judgment of the General Assembly.
It is only stating the obvious to say that it is fundamental in our system of government that the law-making function is vested in the legislative branch. The
Mr. Justice Harlan, dissenting in Wesberry v. Sanders (1964), 376 U.S. 1, 48, 11 L.Ed. 481, 509, 84 S.Ct. 526, 551, phrased it thus: "The Constitution does not confer on the Court blanket authority to step into every situation where the political branch may be thought to have fallen short. The stability of this institution ultimately depends not only upon its being alert to keep the other branches of government within constitutional bounds but equally upon recognition of the limitations on the Court's own functions in the constitutional system."
Precisely in point here is the admonition: "But it is not our function to engraft on a statute additions which we think the legislature logically might or should have made." United States v. Cooper Corp. (1941), 312 U.S. 600, 605, 85 L.Ed. 1071, 1075, 61 S.Ct. 742, 744 (Roberts, J.).
My colleagues' assertion that their creation of a civil remedy is required in order to adequately implement the beneficent purpose of the Workmen's Compensation Act makes one wonder why, if the need was so great, the question had not been presented earlier in the more than 65 years of the Act's existence. Nor do I understand how
The employment contract in this case was terminable at the will of either party as the majority concedes. But by the action it takes today, the majority transforms that contract, as the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit suggested, into tenured employment for every employee who files a compensation claim against an employer. "Certainly it could be argued that acceptance of * * * [plaintiff's] claim here would be tantamount to writing into the Illinois statute a provision for tenure in the event of an industrial injury." (Loucks v. Star City Glass Co. (7th Cir.1977), 551 F.2d 745, 746-47.) Henceforth, no matter how indolent, insubordinate or obnoxious an employee may be, if he has filed a compensation claim against an employer, that employer may thereafter discharge him only at the risk of being compelled to defend a suit for retaliatory discharge and unlimited punitive damages, which could well severely impair or destroy the solvency of small businesses.
As the majority notes, a 1975 amendment to the Workmen's Compensation Act makes it a criminal offense for an employer to threaten or effect a discharge in retaliation for an employee's exercise of his rights under the Act. (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1975, ch. 48, par. 138.4(h).) While that amendment post-dated the episode with which we deal in this case, it is certainly relevant and illuminating of the General Assembly's understanding of the Workmen's Compensation Act and the legislative intent in adopting the amendment. Obviously the Act had not been thought to preclude retaliatory discharges and to provide to one so discharged a cause of action for damages, for, if it did, the amendment was unnecessary. We presume the legislature
I do not doubt that the majority is "convinced that to uphold and implement this public policy a cause of action should exist for retaliatory discharge," as the opinion states (74 Ill.2d at 181), but that fact should be irrelevant, for the legislature was not so convinced. Today's decision, it seems to me, simply usurps the power and function of the legislative branch of government — and evidences an unwillingness by the majority to exercise the self-restraint so essential if the judiciary is to maintain its proper function.
In creating this cause of action, the majority has effectively overruled this court's recent opinion in Teale v. Sears, Roebuck & Co. (1976), 66 Ill.2d 1, while purporting to distinguish it. In Teale, an employee brought a civil action for discharge alleged to be wrongful under the Age Discrimination Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1975, ch. 48, pars. 881 through 887.) That Act made it unlawful to discharge a person because of his age and provided a criminal penalty for doing so. The Act contained a legislative declaration of policy far more certain and explicit than the general public policy formulations relied upon by the majority in the case now before the court.
Section 1 stated:
Despite this strong statement of public policy this court unanimously declined to expand that statute and held that
The court in Teale also relied on the legislatively declared restriction that the right thereby created "shall be protected as provided herein." Similarly the Workmen's Compensation Act in the case before us states that the provisions of the Act "shall be the measure of the responsibility of any employer * * *." (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1973, ch. 48, par. 138.11.) Certainly this language is at least as restrictive as that which the Teale court held precluded the very civil remedy which a majority of this court now creates. Teale is not only persuasive in its reasoning, it is controlling precedent to which this court should adhere, or, at least, have the candor to overrule.
The majority seemingly believes the Frampton (Frampton v. Central Indiana Gas Co. (1973), 260 Ind. 249, 297 N.E.2d 425) and Sventko (Sventko v. Kroger Co. (1976), 69 Mich.App. 644, 245 N.W.2d 151) decisions support its emotional approach to this case. The Frampton court, however, upheld the cause of action for retaliatory discharge because it found such a discharge to be a
Since I do not agree that a cause of action exists for either compensatory or punitive damages, I concur with the court's holding that punitive damages are not available to plaintiff in this case. I disagree with the obiter dicta statements regarding the availability of punitive damages in future cases. As was pointed out in the dissenting opinion in Churchill v. Norfolk & Western Ry. Co. (1978), 73 Ill.2d 127, 150: "The doctrine of punitive damages is not favored by law [citations], and the power of giving punitive damages should be exercised with great caution and they should be properly confined within the narrowest of limitations [citation]." Surely where the legislature has forbidden certain actions and provided a specific penalty for a violation, this court has no authority, on generalized policy grounds, to hold the legislated penalty insufficient and provide a stiffer one. Obviously, the General Assembly felt that the penalty it decided upon was sufficient;
As Mr. Justice White, dissenting, said in Roe v. Wade (1973), 410 U.S. at 222, 35 L.Ed.2d at 196, 93 S.Ct. at 763: "As an exercise of raw judicial power, the Court perhaps has authority to do what it does today; but in my view its judgment is an improvident and extravagant exercise of the power of judicial review that the Constitution extends to this Court."
I would affirm the judgment of the appellate court.