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Palmateer v. International Harvester Co.

Supreme Court of Illinois

April 17, 1981, Filed

No. 53780


 [*127]   [**877]   [****14]  The plaintiff, Ray Palmateer, complains of his discharge by International Harvester Company (IH). He had worked for IH for 16 years, rising from a unionized job at an hourly rate to a managerial position on a fixed salary. Following his discharge, Palmateer filed a four-count complaint against IH, alleging in count II that he had suffered a retaliatory discharge. According to the complaint, Palmateer [***2]  was fired both for supplying information to local law-enforcement authorities that an IH employee might be involved in a violation of the Criminal Code of 1961 (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1979, ch. 38, par. 1 -- 1 et seq.) and for agreeing to assist in the investigation and trial of the employee if requested. The circuit court of Rock Island County ruled the complaint failed to state a cause of action and dismissed it; the appellate court affirmed in a divided opinion. (85 Ill. App. 3d 50.) We granted Palmateer leave to appeal to determine the contours of the tort of retaliatory discharge approved in Kelsay v. Motorola, Inc. (1978), 74 Ill. 2d 172.

In Kelsay the plaintiff was discharged in retaliation for filing a worker's compensation claim. The court noted that public policy strongly favored the exercise of worker's compensation rights; if employees could be fired for filing compensation claims, that public policy  [*128]  would be frustrated. Despite a dissent urging that the creation of a new tort should be left to the legislature, the court said, "We are convinced that to uphold and implement this public policy a cause of action should exist for retaliatory discharge."  [***3]  (74 Ill. 2d 172, 181.) The court then considered the claim for damages, and decided that punitive damages would be allowed in retaliatory discharge cases, but only in the future. The creation of the new tort, at a time when decisions in other jurisdictions conflicted on whether such a firing would be actionable, was sufficiently unexpected that Motorola was not required to pay punitive damages to Kelsay. This court directed, however, that in subsequent  [**878]   [****15]  cases punitive damages would be available. 74 Ill. 2d 172, 189.

With Kelsay, Illinois joined the growing number of States recognizing the tort of retaliatory discharge. ] The tort is an exception to the general rule that an "at-will" employment is terminable at any time for any or no cause. ( Pleasure Driveway & Park District v. Jones (1977), 51 Ill. App. 3d 182, 190.) This general rule is a harsh outgrowth of the notion of reciprocal rights and obligations in employment relationships-- that if the employee can end his employment at any time under any condition, then the employer should have the same right. (Summers, Individual Protection Against Unjust Dismissal: Time for a Statute, 62 Va. L. Rev.  [***4]  481, 484-85 (1976).) As one 19th century court put it:

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85 Ill. 2d 124 *; 421 N.E.2d 876 **; 1981 Ill. LEXIS 282 ***; 52 Ill. Dec. 13 ****; 115 L.R.R.M. 4165


Subsequent History:  [***1]  Modified on Denial of Rehearing June 8, 1981.

Prior History: Appeal from the Appellate Court for the Third District; heard in that court on appeal from the Circuit Court of Rock Island County, the Hon. Dan H. McNeal, Judge, presiding.

Disposition: Appellate court affirmed in part and reversed in part; circuit court affirmed in part and reversed in part; cause remanded.


public policy, retaliatory discharge, discharged, cases, cause of action, courts, punitive damages, articulated, employees, favors, law-enforcement, vague, discharged employee, circuit court, contravened, fired, general rule, retaliation, contending, terminable, rights

Labor & Employment Law, Employment Relationships, At Will Employment, Duration of Employment, General Overview, Wrongful Termination, Remedies, Contracts Law, Defenses, Public Policy Violations, Public Policy, Exceptions, Tort Exceptions, Gender & Sex Discrimination, Employment Practices, Discharges, Sexual Harassment, Discharges & Failures to Hire