The Northern District of Illinois recently dismissed an Indiana-based employee’s claims for retaliatory discharge in violation of common law pursuant to Illinois public policy, focusing on the nature of the connection (or lack thereof) to Illinois and noting that the plaintiff possessed adequate statutory remedies under federal whistleblower laws. O’Risky v. Mead Johnson Nutrition Co., No. 17-cv-1046 (N.D. Ill. Aug. 8, 2017).
Background. Plaintiff worked for Mead Johnson Nutrition since 1990, most recently in the position of Director of Global Product Compliance. In that role, she worked primarily at the Company’s Evansville, Indiana facility, and spent 10-15% of her time at the Company’s headquarters in Glenview, Illinois. She alleged that she raised concerns about food safety issues related to the Company’s manufacture of infant formula through an anonymous internal complaint. An internal investigation ensued. After the investigation concluded, Plaintiff’s employment was terminated, allegedly in connection with a reduction-in-force. Claiming the termination constituted retaliation for her complaint, she filed suit in the Northern District of Illinois, asserting claims based on: (1) Illinois common law (i.e., retaliatory discharge in violation of public policy), (2) the Dodd-Frank Act; (3) the Sarbanes-Oxley Act; and (4) the Food Safety Modernization Act. The Company moved to dismiss the common law retaliatory discharge and Dodd-Frank claims pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6).
Ruling. The court granted the Company’s motion to dismiss the common law retaliatory discharge claim and denied the motion as to the Dodd-Frank claim, without prejudice to later refile that motion after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Somers v. Digital Realty Trust, Inc. (discussed here) is issued. With respect to the retaliatory discharge claim, the court rejected Plaintiff’s request to apply Illinois law, as it concluded that Indiana (and not Illinois) had the most significant relationship to the Plaintiff and her alleged injuries. And because Indiana law does not recognize a common law claim for whistleblower retaliation (unlike Illinois law), the court dismissed the claim. Significantly (albeit in a footnote), the court went on to note that the retaliatory discharge claim would have failed even under Illinois law, because she had adequate statutory remedies—i.e., the federal whistleblower statutes.
Implications. This decision underscores the basic rule that a common law retaliatory discharge claim based on whistleblowing activity is not actionable under Illinois law given the existence of available remedies under federal whistleblower statutes. The is especially valuable to employers given the risk of punitive damages attendant to common law retaliatory discharge claims.