In Phillips v. Continental Tire, the federal Court of Appeals sitting in Chicago confirmed that to prove retaliatory discharge under Illinois law, an employee must establish that he was terminated “primarily in retaliation for” his protected activity. The court found that it wasn’t enough that the employee’s protected activity (here, filing a worker’s comp claim) set into motion a string of events that ended in termination.
Continental Tire’s policy required that an employee submitting a worker’s compensation claim to submit to a drug test and provided that failure to do so would result in termination. Jeff Phillips tried to file worker’s compensation but refused to submit to a drug test. Continental Tire terminated his employment for refusing the drug test and Phillips sued claiming retaliatory discharge on the theory that because the drug test was triggered by his worker’s comp claim, they were “causally related.” The Seventh Circuit rejected Phillips’ argument, finding that “[c]ausation requires more than a discharge in connection with filing a claim” — “[t]o establish causation, the employee must affirmatively show that the discharge was primarily in retaliation for [his] exercise of a protected right.”
We’ve recently seen a small uptick in worker’s compensation retaliation claims, so the Phillips decision is a helpful reminder of the high bar for establishing retaliatory discharge. Still, employers should take extra care in terminating an employee who has filed a worker’s comp claim or engaged in other protected activity.