Illinois is an at-will employment state. Generally, that means that employers can terminate an employee for any reason at all except an illegal reason. One exception to the employee-at-will doctrine is a common law action of retaliatory discharge. To proceed under this claim, certain criteria must be met. First, the employee must prove that he was discharged. Second, the discharge must be found to be in retaliation against the employee for his having engaged in activity that is protected by law or public policy. Third, the discharge must violate a clear mandate of public policy. To properly assert a claim of a retaliatory discharge, the public policy the plaintiff puts forth must clearly reflect the citizen's social right and duties.
For an element of public policy to be considered valid support for a retaliatory discharge claim, the policy must be specifically relevant to the claim at hand, and something more than private interests must be at stake. Two situations where Illinois courts have found the "clear mandate of public policy" requirement to be met are: 1) where an employee is fired for asserting a workers' compensation claim, and 2) where an employee is fired for refusing to engage in illegal conduct or for reporting others' illegal conduct.
To prove a common law retaliatory discharge claim, it is not sufficient to simply allege that the employee was fired for reporting or refusing to participate in illegal conduct. In Shaffer v. National R.R. Passenger Corp., No. 11 C 970, 2011 U.S. dist. LEXIS 119727 (Oct. 17, 2011), a former employee claimed to have been discharged as retaliation for having complaining that Amtrak assigned employees to jobs that they were not qualified to perform. The District Court for the Northern District of Illinois dismissed the complaint, finding that it was fundamentally flawed because the plaintiff failed to state with specificity what public policy the discharge violated.