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No support for allegation employee was fired for reporting ‘assault’ by coworker

By Kathleen Kapusta, J.D.

The company claimed it fired the employee because of his history of workplace conflict and disrespect for his coworkers and his supervisor, the court observed, noting that when a worker is fired for impugning the company’s integrity, the discharge does not violate public policy.

Affirming summary judgment against an employee’s state-law retaliatory discharge claim, the Seventh Circuit—noting that the company made the decision to terminate him two days before he filed a police report regarding an alleged physical assault by a coworker—found he simply failed to show he was fired for reporting a crime. As to his argument that the protected conduct was the reporting of the incident itself, not the police report, the court observed that “he hasn’t pointed us to support for the idea that Illinois has established a clear public policy against firing an employee who was bumped during a shouting match. We are deeply skeptical” (Walker v. Ingersoll Cutting Tool Co., February 20, 2019, Kanne, M.).

The employee, who purportedly had a history of conflict with coworkers, was listening and dancing to music when a coworker told him to mute the radio. Although the employee claimed he was bumped by the coworker and threatened with additional violence, the employer disputed this. It was undisputed, however, that after the coworker yelled at the employee to turn the music off, the two men started shouting at each other.

No more trust. After the unit supervisor separated them, the employee returned to work and the coworker went home. The next day, they worked together without incident but the day after that, the employee asked the unit supervisor to discipline the coworker. When nothing happened, he told the supervisor he no longer trusted or respected him and suggested that the conflict with his coworker was affecting his physical wellbeing.

Suspended. The employee was then suspended without pay. Four days later, the unit supervisor and his boss met, and after discussing the employee’s admitted dislike for his coworkers and his disrespect for the supervisor, decided to fire him. They informed HR by email that same day.

Terminated. One day later, the employee’s attorney told the company he intended to sue for discrimination and retaliation unless the employee was returned to work. That same day, the employee filed a police report regarding the coworker’s alleged physical assault (the prosecutor declined to bring charges). Not quite three weeks later, the employee was formally terminated.

The employee sued, asserting race discrimination under Title VII and retaliatory discharge in violation of state law. The district court granted summary judgment on all claims.

Jurisdiction? Because the employee, during oral argument, withdrew his Title VII claims, the sole issue on appeal was whether summary judgment was properly granted against his retaliatory discharge claim. While he first argued that at, upon granting judgment on his federal claims, the district court should have relinquished jurisdiction over his state-law claim, this, said the appeals court, was a misapprehension of how federal supplemental jurisdiction works. The lower court did not dismiss the federal claims for lack of jurisdiction and there was no abuse of discretion in its decision to resolve the state-law claims on the merits.

Retaliatory discharge. As to the merits, the court pointed out that the employee failed to establish a causal relationship between his activities and his discharge. Not only did his employer decide to fire him two days before the employee filed his police report, he made no attempt to question or undermine the company’s evidence as to this timing.

Protected conduct? Instead, he argued that the protected conduct was his reporting of the incident, not the police report. However, he cited no authority to support his assertion that Illinois has articulated a clear public policy mandate against firing an employee who was involved in a workplace dispute. “It would be difficult,” said the court, “to square such a conclusion with the ‘general rule that an ‘at-will’ employment is terminable at any time for any or no cause.’” Nor did he cite to any authority to support the idea that Illinois has established a clear public policy against firing an employee who was bumped during a shouting match with a coworker.

Even assuming he identified protected conduct, there was no evidence affirmatively showing the company fired him because he accused his coworker of assault. Rather, the company claimed it fired him because of his history of workplace conflict and his stated distrust and disrespect for his coworkers and supervisor. And when a worker is fired for impugning the company’s integrity, the discharge, said the court, does not violate public policy.