Monday, July 19, 2010

Seventh Circuit Rules that in a Case of State Procedural Rule vs. Federal Procedural Rule, the State Rule Prevails Under Erie

In a bit of an oddball case out of the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, at issue is whether a court's conclusion might be altered by whether the framework for deciding an employer’s motion for summary judgment in a retaliatory discharge case governed by Illinois law is supplied by federal law, which is to say by McDonnell Douglas, or by state law. The 7th Circuit acknowledges in the opinion that it is a question that has arisen numerous times before but never answered for several reasons but that it is time to finally answer the question.

This particular case involved retaliation based upon the employee's filing a worker's compensation claim and the Illinois Supreme Court had rejected the McDonnell Douglas framework for retaliation under worker's compensation claims because "it was unwilling to 'expand the tort of retaliatory discharge by reducing plaintiff’s burden of proving the elements of the tort,” one of which is that the workers’ compensation claim (or potential claim) was the cause of the plaintiff’s being fired. Clemons v. Mechanical Devices Co., 704 N.E.2d 403,08 (Ill. 1998). However, the 7th Circuit held in another case, McEwen v. Delta Airlines, Inc., 919 F.2d 58 (7th Cir.1990), another diversity case, that if the rule in Illinois was, as the plaintiff argued in that case, that a plaintiff in a retaliatory-discharge case could defeat summary judgment however weak his prima facie case, nevertheless the McDonnell Douglas rule would govern.

The 7th Circuit ultimately held that: "...when a retaliatory discharge case governed by Illinois law is litigated in a federal court, the federal court must apply the standard of the state law to a motion for summary judgment, and not the federal standard, because the standards are materially different and the difference is rooted in a substantive policy of the state."

Chicago Employment Attorney Paul Mollica notes that, "...this analysis - correct as far as it goes - leaves out is the fact, known to all litigators locally, that it is far harder to get summary judgment in Illinois state court than federal court. So a plaintiff filing in federal court (or removed there) will be hobbled by pro-defendant summary judgment practices without parallel in state court."

The case is Gacek v. American Airlines, No. 09-3131 (7th Cir. July 15, 2010).

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