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.