The Law Protects Injured Illinois Workers From Retaliation

In August of 2011, a Belleville, Illinois, man filed a lawsuit accusing his former employer of retaliation for filing a workers' compensation claim. The complaint filed in the case claims in November of 2010 the man was injured on the job. The man reported the injury to his employer and then sought benefits through the Illinois' Workers' Compensation Act.

After filing his workers' compensation claim, the man was fired by his employer for abandoning his job; a reason the man claims to be pretext for retaliating against him for filing the workers' compensation claim. The lawsuit seeks damages in excess of $100,000 for loss of benefits and income; attorney fees and court costs are also sought.

Workers' Compensation

An employee who suffers a work-related injury is entitled to workers' compensation benefits. Essentially, workers' compensation benefits are the tradeoff of an employee not suing his or her employer after suffering a work-related injury in exchange for receiving certain benefits when he or she is injured. Because an employer avoids potentially paying a large jury award in a lawsuit and the injured employee is guaranteed benefits, the tradeoff is beneficial for both parties.

Occasionally, however, an employer will seek to avoid its responsibilities under workers' compensation laws by discharging or retaliating against an employee who seeks workers' compensation benefits — retaliation serves as an example to other employees to show what could happen if they seek benefits for work-related injuries.

Employer retaliation of any kind for seeking workers' compensation benefits, which is a legally protected act, is illegal.

Retaliatory Discharge

To file a retaliatory discharge claim through Illinois' Workers' Compensation Act, an employee needs to prove three elements:

  1. That he or she was an employee prior to suffering the work-related injury;
  2. That he or she exercised a right granted by the act; and
  3. That his or her discharge is casually related to the exercise of rights under the act.

An employee's claim for Illinois workers' compensation benefits does not need to be successfully made in order to have a retaliation claim — rather the key is the relationship between exercise of protected rights and the discharge or retaliation as a direct result of the exercise of those rights.

In fact, an employee may have a retaliation claim against his or her employer for being fired for making a workers' compensation claim that his or her employer believes to be frivolous or "exaggerated," as an article in The National Law Review points out. In Clark v. Owens-Brockway Glass Container, the employer believed that the employee was exaggerating her claim for workers' compensation benefits, and fired her. However, the Illinois Court of Appeals reasoned that firing an employee for a belief that the claim is exaggerated is firing the employee for exercising his or her rights under the act. The court stated: "While an employer may discharge an employee claiming benefits for a valid and non-pretextual reason, a dispute about the nature and extent of the injury does not constitute such a valid reason."

Further, an employee may be protected by the act before filing a claim. If an employee is discharged after suffering a work-related injury but before filing a claim, and the employer knew of the work-related injury prior to the discharge, the employee may have a retaliatory discharge claim.

And, it's not just employees who suffer work-related injuries or file for workers' compensation benefits that can be retaliated against. Occasionally, employers will fire employees who witness another's work-related injury or who testify about the injuries suffered by a fellow employee.

If an employee's retaliation claim is successful, damages for back pay, future lost wages, and attorneys' fees and court costs can be recovered. And, if the employee proves that the employer's actions were willful and wanton, punitive damages may also be awarded.

Other Forms of Retaliation

Retaliation against an employee who exercises his or her rights under the act is not limited to just discharge. Retaliation can take many forms, including but not limited to:

  • Failure to promote
  • Demotion
  • Refusal to rehire
  • Undeserved poor performance review
  • Undeserved disciplinary action
  • Undeserved employment references

Suffering a work-related injury can be difficult enough, but if your employer fires you or otherwise retaliates against you for filing a workers' compensation claim, the situation can feel even worse. If you believe that you have been subjected to retaliation for exercising your rights under the Illinois' Workers' Compensation Act, contact an attorney with experience handling retaliation claims to discuss your situation and learn of your legal rights and options.