Fifth District reverses Gleeson’s order granting dismissal of retaliatory discharge suit based upon prior arbitration

By Heather Isringhausen Gvillo | Nov 29, 2016

The Fifth District Appellate Court reversed St. Clair County Circuit Judge Andrew Gleeson’s order granting dismissal in an employee’s suit alleging retaliatory discharge based upon res judicata and collateral estoppel.

The Fifth District Appellate Court reversed St. Clair County Circuit Judge Andrew Gleeson’s order granting dismissal in an employee’s suit alleging retaliatory discharge based upon res judicata and collateral estoppel.

Justice James “Randy” Moore delivered the Rule 23 decision on Nov. 28. Justices Thomas Welch and Melissa Chapman concurred.

The court held that the trial court erred when it dismissed a retaliatory discharge, concluding that the issues raised were decided in a previous grievance arbitration.

The appeals court concluded that the plaintiff’s complaint is sufficient to allege a cause of action for the narrow and limited tort of retaliatory discharge.

Plaintiff Michael Chatterton claims he worked for defendant Beelman Ready Mix Inc. as a truck driver for approximately 10 years before filing his lawsuit on March 13, 2014, for retaliatory discharge.

He alleged he was discharged by Beelman on Oct. 1, 2013, after he advised the defendant that the dump truck the plaintiff was scheduled to drive was unsafe to operate on public roadways and that he would not drive it.

“Specifically, he alleged that the dump truck ‘lacked proper mirrors’ and that the defendant had attempted, unsuccessfully, to remedy the problem with the mirrors by trying ‘to duct tape mirrors in place on the truck,’” the appellate decision states.

Chatterton acknowledged that he backed the truck into a parked vehicle on Beelman’s property, damaging the truck, which the defendant relied upon for discharging him. However, the plaintiff alleges the reasons provided for his discharge were “pretextual.”

In its April 24, 2014, answer, the defendant denied that the plaintiff was discharged for improper reasons.

Bellman filed a counterclaim for damages of $6,872.22 on May 14, 2014.

The defendant later filed a third amended answer, arguing that the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel barred Chatterton’s claim based on a final and binding arbitration.

It also filed a motion for summary judgment on March 6, 2015.

According to the arbitration transcript before arbitrator Mark Suardi, the parties were questioning “whether there was just cause for the discharge” of Chatterton and what remedy was appropriate.

Michael Atchison, plant manager of the Sandoval, Ill., facility, testified that on the morning in question, Chatterton never said anything to him about the unsafe mirrors.

He added that Chatterton had the least seniority, but when he was given his directions for the day he began yelling that it was discrimination to make him drive the dump truck.

Atchison said Chatterton still failed to mention the mirrors and was ordered to get in the dump truck and go to Mt. Vernon. He said he then heard the dump truck “barreling out of the shop” and crashed into a parked cement mixer truck.

However, he admitted that he only heard the accident and that he did not note speed as a cause of the accident on the report.

Kevin Whipple, assistant general manager, testified that the plaintiff wanted to stay local and run a mixer instead of driving to Mt. Vernon.

He added that while he couldn’t see the collision, he could tell that Chatterton was driving too fast.

Ultimately, he was the one who made the decision to discharge Chatterton for incompetence.

Chatterton still failed to mention the alleged broken mirror, he testified.

The plaintiff then testified on his own behalf, stating that he told Whipple the truck was unsafe but was ordered to drive it anyway.

He added that it was pitch dark outside and he could not see when trying to back the dump truck out of the shop. He claims he was in “granny low” gear because the truck had transmission problems, which means he would have been driving one or two miles per hour.

However, employee Bill Williams testified that the transmission issue actually required the dump truck be backed up in a higher gear, meaning it increased the speed rather than limited the speed.

In its motion for summary judgment, the defendant included a copy of the arbitrator’s July 2014 decision. The arbitrator found that testimony “credibly” shows that Chatterton was “enraged” at the time of the incident. He also held that Chatterton’s testimony that he attempted to raise safety issues “simply is not credible.”

The arbitrator also concluded that the dump truck in question was safe to drive.

The circuit court converted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment into a motion to dismiss and granted the converted motion on June 30, 2015.

Chatterton filed an amended complaint on July 31, 2015.

A second motion to dismiss was granted Nov. 25, 2015.

The plaintiff appealed, arguing that the complaint is sufficient.

Relying on the Ryherd case, the appeals court quoted the Illinois Supreme Court, which held that a trial judge would determine whether the discharge was in contravention of the state’s public policy while an arbitrator would determine whether the employer’s motive constituted “just cause.”

“The court noted that while an arbitrator was certainly competent to determine factual issues underlying a retaliatory discharge claim, an arbitrator nevertheless would have ‘no competence and, indeed, no mandate to determine whether the motives for the discharge contravene a clearly mandated public policy,’” the decision states.

The appeals court concluded that the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel do not bar the plaintiff’s claim in this case, and the circuit court erred when it granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss.

“We take no position with regard to whether the plaintiff will ultimately be able to prove his retaliatory discharge claim,” the decision states.

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