Assistant Principal Hired for Definite Term Cannot Establish a Retaliatory Discharge Claim

By May 8, 2014April 29th, 2015News

In Taylor v. Board of Education of the City of Chicago, the Appellate Court reversed the judgment against the Board of Education of the City of Chicago (“Board”) on a claim of retaliatory discharge by a former assistant principal. 2014 IL App (1st) 123744. The Appellate Court held that as an assistant principal, the plaintiff was employed for a definite contractual term of employment, so he was not an at-will employee and could not establish a claim for retaliatory discharge.

Kenneth Taylor was employed by the Board since 1990, first as a teacher and then as an assistant principal. He received tenure in 1992. In 2007, while his supervising principal was away from the school, Taylor reported an alleged abuse of a student by another teacher. A teacher reported to Taylor that a special education teacher tripped a special education student, causing him to fall. After the reporting teacher refused to report the incident to the Department of Child and Family Services (“DCFS”), Taylor took corrective action as outlined in the district’s handbook and reported the incident to DCFS and his supervising principal, Lewis.

Lewis told Taylor that he mishandled the situation because the special education teacher was engaging in an approved therapy for the student. According to Taylor, Lewis and the Board began a campaign of harassing behavior toward him because of his report to DCFS, including poor performance evaluations and unwarranted discipline. Taylor was also “diminished” to the position of a social studies teacher, a position that he did not feel qualified for. During the two subsequent school years and in between medical and bereavement leaves taken by Taylor, the conflict between Taylor and Lewis continued. In January 2009, Taylor was notified that he was being released from his contract.

The Appellate Court explained that in order to state a valid claim for retaliatory discharge, an employee must establish that “(1) the employer discharged him, (2) in retaliation for the employee’s activities, and (3) that the discharge violates a clearly mandated public policy.” The courts have maintained a narrow scope for retaliatory discharge claims, including limiting it to at-will employees.

The Appellate Court agreed with the Board that Taylor was not an at-will employee because, as a “quota” assistant principal, Taylor was hired for definite term of employment, which expired at the end of a principal’s 4-year term (subject to a renewal at the discretion of the principal). While Taylor argued that he was an at-will employee because his employment could continue automatically unless the Board took affirmative steps to end it, the court rejected this argument because the terms of his employment were sufficiently clear to establish employment for a set term. The court also noted that “where an employer provides an employee with a clearly articulated progressive disciplinary procedure, outlined in unequivocal and mandatory language,” courts have found the employee to be a contractual, rather than an at-will, employee.

Additionally, the Appellate Court rejected the Board’s argument with respect to Taylor’s Illinois Whistleblower Act (“Act”) (740 ILCS 174/1 et seq.) claim. The Board argued that the circuit court abused its discretion in allowing evidence of retaliatory conduct prior to January 2009, because it exceeded the statute of limitations period. The Appellate Court disagreed, finding that the evidence of Lewis’s increasing hostility towards the plaintiff in that period was highly probative, and could be admitted, subject to a limiting jury instruction.

Finally, the Appellate Court agreed with the Board that it was entitled to a new trial on Taylor’s Whistleblower Act claim because the trial court erroneously permitted the use of a single verdict form for both the retaliatory discharge claim and the claim under the Act. Finding that the Act affords far greater relief than the tort of retaliatory discharge and because it reversed the trial court’s judgment on the retaliatory discharge claim, the Appellate Court reasoned that a new trial was necessary to determine damages on the Whistleblower Act claim.