Labor & Employment Law I FEBRUARY 23, 2021

Existence of Employment Contract Bars Retaliatory Discharge Claim; School Principal Qualifies as “Minister” So That Whistleblower Claim Fails

In a recent case, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that an ex-employee who had been employed under an employment agreement could not state a claim for common law retaliatory discharge. The court also found the “whistleblower” claim of the former Catholic School principal was barred by the so-called “ministerial exception.” Excerpts from the court’s opinion follow below.

Mary Rehfield worked as an educator for many years, including nearly 18 years as a principal. As relates to this article, Rehfield was the principal of St. Raphael Catholic School in Naperville, Illinois. Father Daniel Bachner was the pastor of St. Raphael.

In January 2016, a student’s mother alerted a teacher that her daughter had been “picked on” at school. The teacher then received an e-mail from the student’s father, William MacKinnon. MacKinnon sent several additional e-mails to the same teacher.

In the spring of 2016, Rehfield received a “concerning” e-mail from MacKinnon. After talking with the police and Father Bachner, Rehfield distributed a photograph of MacKinnon to the faculty members and staff of the school and the parish with instructions to call 911 if MacKinnon was seen on campus.

Father Bachner then received a voicemail from MacKinnon. As noted by the court, “to the extent that the message was threatening, the threat was to Father Bachner.” When Rehfield learned of the voicemail, she contacted the police and requested that they review the matter. The police issued an arrest warrant for MacKinnon.

Rehfield again distributed a photograph of MacKinnon to school and parish staff and informed them to call 911 if they saw MacKinnon. The police and Father Bachner told Rehfield that it was “unnecessary” and “inappropriate” to communicate about the matter with parents.”

The Naperville Sun published a story that inaccurately stated that MacKinnon’s voicemail message was sent to Rehfield rather than to Father Bachner. Compounding the problem, the newspaper also inaccurately reported that MacKinnon threatened to terrorize the school and its staff. Concerned parents contacted Rehfield and others at St. Raphael, and Rehfield sent a letter to parents explaining the situation. At a meeting with parents, some expressed anger that they were not informed of the situation earlier.

A few days after this meeting, the Diocese terminated Rehfield from her position as principal of St. Raphael. Rehfield sued the Diocese of Joliet.

Count I of Rehfield’s first amended complaint, titled “Retaliatory Discharge,” alleged that the Diocese unlawfully retaliated against Rehfield by terminating her for reporting a parent’s threatening conduct to police. In count II, Rehfield asserted that the Diocese’s actions violated the Illinois Whistleblower Act, (740 ILCS 174/1), which provides, in part, that an employer may not retaliate against an employee for disclosing information to a law enforcement agency where the employee has reasonable cause to believe the information discloses a violation of a state or federal law, rule, or regulation.

The circuit court decided that the amended complaint failed to state a claim for retaliatory discharge because Rehfield had been employed pursuant to a contract; common law retaliatory discharge claims may only be asserted by employees terminable at will. The trial court further determined that it must abstain from deciding both of Rehfield’s claims in accordance with the doctrine of ecclesiastic abstention. The appellate court affirmed.

Before the Illinois Supreme Court, the Diocese argued that Rehfield’s cause of action for common law retaliatory discharge in count I was properly dismissed because Rehfield was not an at-will employee at the time of her discharge.

The Illinois Supreme Court has been loath to expand the tort of retaliatory discharge and refused to do so in this case. Rehfield admitted on the face of her complaint that her employment was subject to a contract. There was no allegation (or evidence in the record) that Rehfield was an at-will employee. Accordingly, she was unable to state a claim for common law retaliatory discharge under the law in Illinois.

The Diocese argued that Rehfield did not qualify as a “whistleblower” under the Whistleblower Act because she was not reporting the illegal activities of her employer to the police.

This argument did not persuade the court. Nothing in the statutory language suggests that the legislature intended to limit the Whistleblower Act’s protections to those situations in which an employee blows the whistle on his/her employer.

Accordingly, the court rejected the Diocese’s argument with respect to the legal sufficiency of Rehfield’s whistleblower claim. That, however, was not enough to save her claim.

The Diocese’s motion to dismiss raised two separate, judicially created doctrines as grounds for dismissal—first, the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine and second, the ministerial exception. Both doctrines are rooted in the first amendment to the United States Constitution, as applied to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment.

The essence of Rehfield’s claim was the allegation that she was wrongfully discharged from her position as principal of St. Raphael. Her action bore directly on the Diocese’s right to select its ministers, assuming Rehfield qualifies as a minister.

In her complaint, Rehfield described her job duties as primarily secular in nature. She alleged that one of the main reasons she was hired as principal was “bringing order to the school administration.” She alleges that, during her employment as principal, she “successfully designed and implemented a number of programs to improve the education experience for her students.” These included piloting an online communication program for parents and teachers, adopting a new science curriculum, redesigning procedures for reading and learning behavior specialists, initiating an anti-bullying campaign, and introducing several data-driven curriculum changes. Rehfield alleged she was active in the community, often attending events on behalf of St. Raphael to encourage more families to send their children to the school. She also appeared on local podcasts and community television and hosted open houses at the school.

Rehfield’s 2016-17 employment contract described Rehfield as a “lay principal” and a “lay individual.”

In a declaration, Father Bachner stated that the principal of St. Raphael is “expected to serve as the religious and educational leader[ ]” of the school community.

Father’s Bachner’s declaration included excerpts from the Diocese’s school policy handbook, which stated that the principal “bears the chief responsibility for organizing and implementing school community relations” and that the pastor “delegates to the principal the operation of the school.” It states that a person seeking a position as a principal for the Diocese “shall be a committed, practicing Catholic.”

According to the Illinois Supreme Court, the evidence established that Rehfield was required to be a practicing Catholic and to abide by the Diocesan handbook. In her role as principal of St. Raphael, she was expected to “provide an identifiably Catholic atmosphere in the school, visit classrooms and supervise teachers in their provision of a Catholic education, establish student-instructional programs that include regular religious education, and develop and participate in religious programming for staff.”

Based on this evidence, and in the absence of evidence to the contrary, the court saw no meaningful difference between Rehfield’s role and those of the teachers in Our Lady of Guadalupe School. In each case, the plaintiffs held important roles in fostering the religious education of the students at their respective schools. Moreover, as principal, Rehfield was expected to represent not only the school but also the Diocese to parents, the parish community, and the public.

Thus, although her formal title (“lay principal”) did not necessarily indicate a religious role, it was apparent that Rehfield’s job duties entailed numerous religious functions in furtherance of the school’s Catholic mission. Accordingly, the court held there was sufficient evidence in the record to conclude that Rehfield was a minister and, thus, that the ministerial exception barred her whistleblower claim.

The appellate court’s judgment affirming dismissal of Rehfield’s complaint was affirmed.

Mary Rehfield v. Diocese of Joliet, 2021 IL 125656.