Labor & Employment Law I APRIL 16, 2019

Court Addresses Retaliatory Discharge Under Wage Payment Act

Karin Williams worked as a full-time nurse reviewer for Keystone Peer Review Organization.  KEPRO is a private organization contracted by the State of Illinois to provide quality assurance and fee-for-service utilization review in inpatient hospital settings for the State’s medical assistance program.

Williams was responsible for helping to determine if children were eligible for a medical waiver for nursing services provided at home. Williams had to gather factual information in order to answer an interactive online questionnaire. The completed questionnaire would then go to a medical director for a determination of waiver eligibility. Williams’ duties included reviewing the patient’s individual medical records and then conducting a face-to-face interview with the patient’s caregivers. Williams was paid by the hour and was able to work remotely using online data management tools provided by KEPRO. Williams accrued paid time off (“PTO”) as a full-time employee working for the organization.

Williams believed she would be compensated for all her time as long as she was logged on to the system and was available for work. That impression changed. Williams participated in a conference call with KEPRO Director of Operations, Denise Rinell. During the call, Rinell told Williams and other nurse reviewers that from that day on they were to only enter time for “active productivity,” which meant time spent reviewing files or otherwise working on their assigned caseload.  Rinell also said the nurse reviewers would be required to complete a minimum of five assessments per week in order to be paid for a full 40-hour week.

In an audit performed by the State of Illinois, it was discovered that in April 2015 Williams had entered twenty-four (24) hours of time she did not work, but for which she was paid. KEPRO asked Williams to use her accrued PTO or work unpaid overtime to make up for the twenty-four-hour deficit from April 2015. Williams refused to work unpaid overtime and complained to KEPRO that it was illegal to require an hourly employee to work unpaid overtime to make up for the hours for which she was mistakenly paid.  However, Williams did tell KEPRO she “would feel more comfortable having [her] next paycheck docked if that is an option” instead. Williams also offered to use PTO to make up for the 24-hour deficit.

KEPRO docked Williams’ timesheet by approximately seventeen and a half hours and failed to compensate her for another three hours of overtime. KEPRO also stopped assigning work to Williams and required her to attend an additional training session. Williams interpreted the tone of her individual training session, and the fact that KEPRO removed her active cases and failed to assign her new ones, among other events, as constructive discharge of her employment.

Williams filed suit against KEPRO in the circuit court.  KEPRO removed the case to federal court based on diversity jurisdiction. 

There were three outstanding claims against KEPRO, but its summary judgment motion only addressed Williams’ retaliation claim under the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act (“IWPCA”).  Williams’ claim failed.

In Illinois, an at-will employee may be terminated at any time for any or no reason. Illinois courts, however, have recognized the tort of retaliatory discharge as a limited and narrow exception to the at-will employment rule. Under Illinois law, a valid retaliatory discharge claim requires a showing that (1) an employee has been discharged; (2) in retaliation for her activities; and (3) the discharge violates a clear mandate of public policy. Tullis v. Townley Engineering & Mfg. Co., Inc., 243 F.3d 1058, 1062 (7th Cir. 2001).

While there was evidence for a reasonable jury to infer Williams was constructively discharged, Williams failed to produce sufficient evidence to demonstrate that she was discharged because of any complaint relating to the docking of her time.  Additionally, even if Williams was discharged for complaining about KEPRO’s request that she work unpaid overtime to make up for a billing error, the IWPCA, in and of itself, does not offer a cause of action for unpaid overtime requests.   Williams’ claim lacked a basis for relief.

Williams’ employer’s request that she work unpaid overtime was not prohibited under the IWPCA, unless a pre-existing agreement between the parties stated otherwise.

Here, Williams offered no proof of an existing employment agreement that restricted the use of unpaid overtime. Additionally, she failed to provide any argument as to how KFPRO’s request to work unpaid overtime to make up for a billing imbalance fell within the express language of the IWPCA.  Finally, Williams failed to adduce any evidence that she actually complained to KEPRO about her wages being unlawfully docked, and that this complaint was the cause of her constructive discharge. Accordingly, there was no genuine issue of material fact and KEPRO’s motion for summary judgment on the issue of retaliatory discharge was granted.

Karin Williams v Keystone Peer Review Organization, Inc., and Denise Rinell, 2019 WL 1177951 (C.D. Ill., Mar. 13, 2019).