Illinois is an “at-will” employment state, which means an employee may be terminated by an employer for any reason, without warning, so long as the reason for the termination is not illegal. Further, an employee may similarly leave their job, without warning, at any time as well. However, like many other at-will employment states, an employee may still be able to sue their employer for wrongful termination if they were terminated for an illegal reason.
An example of an illegal reason for terminating an employee would be firing them based on their race, religion, or other protected classes or characteristics that have a discriminatory nature. Protected classes or characteristics include race, color, national origin, sex, religion, disability, age, marital status, or sexual orientation.
Employers who fire an employee for a discriminatory reason may have to compensate the wrongfully terminated employee through back pay, reinstatement, other forms of monetary compensation, or other forms of relief.
There may be additional reasons that an at-will employee may hold an employer liable for terminating them. These can include a breach of their employment contract, for retaliation, or for terminating them for exercising their employee rights. In all of those situations an Illinois employee may have a legal claim against their former employer.
Unfortunately, Illinois’ definition of employee termination against public policy is not clear. In Illinois, in order to have a valid claim for wrongful termination based on a public policy violation, the employee must prove that their termination violated a clearly mandated public policy.
Proving that you were terminated based on a clearly mandated public policy is considered on a case-by-case basis. However, taking time off of work to serve jury duty or taking time off work to vote will typically involve public policy.
Other illegal reasons for terminating an employee in Illinois include, but are not limited to:
- Violations of federal employment discrimination laws, such as terminating an employee based on a protected class or characteristic;
- Implied employment contracts or agreements: these may involve an employer promising permanent employment; or, promising employment for a specific period of time, but terminating the employment before the specified amount of time has passed;
- Firing an employee who has filed a workers’ compensation claim. The Illinois Supreme Court ruled that it is illegal for an employer to fire a worker because they have exercised their right to recover workers’ compensation from the employer;
- Retaliation against an employee (this is also known as “retaliatory discharge”), such as firing a person who has participated in legally protected activities (formally complaining about workplace sexual assault, whistleblowing, etc.);
- Violating the “Covenant of Good Faith and Fair Dealing,” by intentionally misleading employees in regards to their chances at promotion or a pay raise, or firing an employee to prevent them from collecting a bonus or sales commission that is due to them; or
- Terminating an employee in violation of a written promise, or otherwise fraudulently terminating an employee.
As noted above, in Illinois specifically, according to Illinois and federal employment law, it is unlawful for employers to terminate employment based on the following:
- Pregnancy or family status;
- Citizenship status;
- Sexual orientation;
- Age (if the employee is over the age of forty); or
- If the employee has their GED (General Education Development) as opposed to their high school diploma.
It is important to note that in Illinois, the wrongful termination laws listed above apply to employers with 15 or more employees, however the prohibition against age discrimination only applies to employers with 20 or more employees.
Further, illinois law, unlike other states, requires that there be proof of an actual firing. This means that wrongful termination laws do not apply to other types of discipline imposed by an employer, such as demotion or threat of termination.
In short, yes. If you feel that you have been wrongfully terminated, you may also be able to recover based on federal employment protections. In order to do so, you should first contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to file a complaint. The EEOC will then determine if an investigation is warranted. If they determine that there are proper grounds for your complaint they may take action and issue citations against your employer, as well as provide you with a “right to sue letter.” The right to sue letter will then allow you to file a civil lawsuit against your employer for your wrongful termination.
If you are successful in your civil lawsuit you may be able to receive the following damages:
- Loss of Wages: Loss of wages is the most common wrongful termination remedy ordered by a court, and includes all wages lost as a result of the wrongful termination;
- Emotional Distress: Emotional distress is another type of claim available to recover damages in a wrongful termination suit, but is often difficult to prove and requires a physical manifestation;
- Injunctive Relief: A court may conclude injunctive relief is an appropriate remedy, and order that the employee be reinstated, or that the employer cease doing something in the future; or
- Punitive Damages: Punitive damages are special damages that may be awarded if an employer actions in terminating the employee were especially egregious. Punitive damages are rarely awarded, and only awarded in cases where an employer’s actions were willful and egregious.
As can be seen, wrongful termination can be especially difficult to prove in at-will employment states such as Illinois. Thus, it may be in your best interest to consult with a knowledgeable and qualified Illinois employment attorney. An experienced Illinois attorney will be able to assist you in determining if you were indeed wrongfully terminated, explain your state’s specific laws to you, as well as represent you in court, if necessary.