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No longer adrift: Illinois retaliatory discharge claim applies on water, too

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in Employment Law,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Management Training

Illinois law makes it retaliation to fire employees because they report dangerous or illegal activities at work—even if they are otherwise at-will employees who can be fired for any legal reason. That holds true even if those employees work on a river barge otherwise governed by federal admiralty laws.

Recent case:
Dave Robinson worked as a deckhand on a Mississippi River barge. On three occasions, he reported to management that crew members had used illegal drugs while on duty. Shortly after the third report, the employer fired him.

Robinson sued, claiming he was protected under two Illinois laws—the Illinois Whistleblower Act and the state’s retaliatory discharge exception to at-will employment. The barge owners claimed that since the barge operated on navigable waters, federal admiralty laws were the only laws that applied.

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed. It said federal laws do not preempt state laws protecting the public from unsafe acts on the waterways. The court ruled that Robinson had a claim for retaliatory discharge for reporting unsafe illegal activity. He’ll get the chance to prove to a jury that he was fired because of his complaints, and not some other legitimate reason. (Robinson v. Alter Barge Line, No. 07-1647, 7th Cir., 2008)

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