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A plaintiff must allege three elements to state a valid claim for the tort of retaliatory discharge: 1) that plaintiff was discharged, 2) that the discharge was in retaliation for his or her activities, and 3) that the discharge violates a clear mandate of public policy. Discharge in an employment context is commonly understood to mean the release, dismissal, or termination of an employee. The tort of retaliatory discharge does not encompass any behavior other than actual termination of employment. Further, the element of discharge is essential to the retaliatory discharge tort. On the other, in order to state a cause of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress, a plaintiff must adequately allege that: 1) the defendant's conduct was extreme and outrageous; 2) the defendant either intended to inflict severe emotional distress or knew that there was a high probability that its conduct would do so; and 3) the defendant's conduct actually caused severe emotional distress. Whether conduct is extreme and outrageous is evaluated on an objective standard based on all of the facts and circumstances.
In December 1995, the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) began an independent investigation into allegations of safety violations, as well as harassment, intimidation and discrimination at the Dresden station. Plaintiff James Graham reported safety violations to his supervisors, defendant Commonwealth Edison Company’s quality first department, which was designed to handle employee concerns anonymously, and finally to the NRC in December 1995 and January 1996. Shortly thereafter, defendant began its own independent investigation concurrently with the NRC investigation. Defendant began the investigation into plaintiff, during which, the former revealed to plaintiff that it knew he had made anonymous complaints. It gave plaintiff the choice of resigning or facing prosecution for harassing and intimidating coworkers but plaintiff refused to resign. Defendant started interviewing its employees concerning the allegations against plaintiff. In the interviews, defendant made several allegedly defamatory statements and then requested that the interviewees confirm their knowledge of this behavior. When the investigation was finished, it was found that the allegations against plaintiff were unsubstantiated. However, the company never informed its employees that the charges against plaintiff were false. Plaintiff was transferred back to his station, but with a new position. The new position resulted in a pay cut, a demotion and no supervisory or managerial duties. He was later transferred to another department, since then, he has not been promoted or given any meaningful job responsibilities. Plaintiff filed his third amended complaint against defendant, alleging defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress and retaliatory discharge. Defendant filed a motion to dismiss the complaint pursuant to section 2-615, alleging that the complaint failed to state a cause of action upon which relief could be granted. The trial court granted the motion with prejudice with respect to the defamation and negligent infliction of emotional distress counts. Defendant sought an interlocutory appeal pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 308 but was denied with respect to the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim. Defendant renewed its motion but was also denied. On its second motion to dismiss the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim, it was now granted. Plaintiff appealed from that order.
Did the circuit court correctly denied defendant’s motion to dismiss on the retaliatory discharge count and in dismissing plaintiff’s intentional infliction of emotional distress claim?
The court reversed the orders and remanded the case to the trial court. On the first issue, the court order denying dismissal of the retaliatory discharge count was reversed since the court found that plaintiff failed to sufficiently plead the first element of retaliatory discharge because he did not allege actual discharge, thus, his claim failed. The court refused to expand the definition of discharge to encompass the discharge from one position to a lower position, or a constructive discharge, based on a long line of authority. Thus, the trial court erred in failing to dismiss that count. Further, the court reversed the dismissal of the emotional distress claim, holding that defendant company's actions in proceeding on a sham investigation for the sole purpose of retaliating against plaintiff because he reported nuclear safety regulations violations was sufficient to constitute extreme and outrageous behavior. Therefore, for having met the other elements, plaintiff's claim survived dismissal.