An Illinois state court of appeals recently held that the Cook County Department of Public Health (“Cook County”) was not liable for common law retaliatory discharge because plaintiff/appellant failed to identify a cognizable “public policy.”  Lucas v. County of Cook, Case No. 09 L 11982 (1st Dist. March 5, 2013). This decision underscores the height of the hurdle employees face in attempting to show a public policy has been violated, as general references to safety and health simply will not do–particularly in the wake of the Illinois Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Turner v. Memorial Medical Center, 233 Ill. 2d 494 (2009).


Throughout her employment at Cook County, plaintiff/appellant Dr. Lucas exclusively treated female patients.  However, Cook County made the business decision to merge the family planning clinic and the STD clinic.  As a result, it informed Dr. Lucas that she would need to treat both male and female patients.  Dr. Lucas refused to treat male patients, asserting she was not competent to treat them.  On that basis, she claimed her treatment of males would violate several state laws.  Cook County disagreed and instructed her to attend training on the treatment of male patients for STDs.  And it made clear to her that she would be discharged if she failed to complete the training.  Her employment was terminated after she failed to complete the training. 

Dr. Lucas filed suit in the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois, alleging, among other things, retaliatory discharge.  The Circuit Court granted Cook County summary judgment and Dr. Lucas appealed.

The Illinois Appellate Court’s Decision

The First District explained that to pursue a retaliatory discharge claim under Illinois common law, a plaintiff must establish that: “(1) the employer discharged the employee, (2) in retaliation for the employee’s activities, and (3) that the discharge violates a clear mandate of public policy.”  The First District held, however, that Dr. Lucas failed to identify a “clearly mandated public policy” that was violated, and thus affirmed the dismissal of her claim.  Rather, the court emphasized that Dr. Lucas merely pointed to a “broad and general” public policy of protecting health and safety, and embraced the Illinois Supreme Court’s decision in Turner (above), which held that an employee’s generalized allegations of risks of public safety were insufficient.  Court further noted that Cook County’s request that Dr. Lucas attend training on the treatment of male patients did not appear to have been contemplated, let alone prohibited, by any state law.   


This decision shows that, in the context of dispositive motions, employers are continuing to gain traction in challenging plaintiffs’ assertions that they complained of a “public policy.”  Indeed, it shows that mere references to safety and health, just like generalized references to the Constitution or various laws, are inadequate.  Further, decisions like Lucas serve to emphasize that the tort of retaliatory discharge is a narrow exception to the doctrine of employment at-will in Illinois.

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Photo of Steven J. Pearlman Steven J. Pearlman

Steven J. Pearlman is a partner in the Labor & Employment Law Department and Co-Head of the Whistleblowing & Retaliation Group and the Restrictive Covenants, Trade Secrets & Unfair Competition Group.

Steven’s practice covers the full spectrum of employment law, with a particular…

Steven J. Pearlman is a partner in the Labor & Employment Law Department and Co-Head of the Whistleblowing & Retaliation Group and the Restrictive Covenants, Trade Secrets & Unfair Competition Group.

Steven’s practice covers the full spectrum of employment law, with a particular focus on defending companies against claims of employment discrimination, retaliation and harassment; whistleblower retaliation; restrictive covenant violations; theft of trade secrets; and wage-and-hour violations. He has successfully tried cases in multiple jurisdictions, and defended one of the largest Illinois-only class actions in the history of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. He also secured one of only a few ex parte seizures orders that have been issued under the Defend Trade Secrets Act, and obtained a world-wide injunction in federal litigation against a high-level executive who jumped ship to a competitor.

Reporting to boards of directors, their audit committees, CEOs and in-house counsel, Steven conducts sensitive investigations and has testified in federal court. His investigations have involved complaints of sexual harassment involving C-suite officers; systemic violations of employment laws and company policies; and fraud, compliance failures and unethical conduct.

Steven was recognized as Lawyer of the Year for Chicago Labor & Employment Litigation in the 2023 edition of The Best Lawyers in America. He is a Fellow of the College of Labor and Employment Lawyers.  Chambers describes Steven as an “outstanding lawyer” who is “very sharp and very responsive,” a “strong advocate,” and an “expert in his field.” Steven was 1 of 12 individuals selected by Compliance Week as a “Top Mind.” Earlier in his career, he was 1 of 5 U.S. lawyers selected by Law360 as a “Rising Star Under 40” in the area of employment law and 1 of “40 Illinois Attorneys Under Forty to Watch” selected by Law Bulletin Publishing Company. Steven is a Burton Award Winner (U.S. Library of Congress) for “Distinguished Legal Writing.”

Steven has served on Law360’s Employment Editorial Advisory Board and is a Contributor to He has appeared on Bloomberg News (television and radio) and Yahoo! Finance, and is regularly quoted in leading publications such as The Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has engaged Steven to serve as lead counsel on amicus briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court and federal circuit courts of appeal. He was appointed to serve as a Special Assistant Attorney General for the State of Illinois in employment litigation matters. He has presented with the Solicitor of the DOL, the Acting Chair of the EEOC, an EEOC Commissioner, Legal Counsel to the EEOC and heads of the SEC, CFTC and OSHA whistleblower programs. He is also a member of the Sedona Conference, focusing on trade secret matters.