The Illinois Appellate Court recently addressed several issues relating to the ability of the Human Rights Commission to hear and rule on motions for a directed finding in employment discrimination cases. In Koulegeorge v. Illinois Human Rights Commission, WL No. 1-98-4364 (1st Dist. 2000), the Illinois Appellate Court reviewed a case wherein the administrative law judge entered a directed finding in favor of the respondent. In Koulegeorge, petitioner alleged that his employer discriminated against him based on his age when he was laid off from his job of many years. Petitioner was laid off as part of a plant-wide reduction in force. His specific position was evaluated and eliminated. No one replaced petitioner and his duties were reassigned to other employees.
Petitioner’s charge was heard before an administrative law judge. The ALJ found that petitioner’s evidence was not credible. Although the employer had made several comments to petitioner concerning his continued employment at the company, none of the comments related in any way to petitioner’s age. Moreover, allegations of age discrimination in other departments were speculative and not supported by concrete evidence. At the hearing, respondent employer moved for a directed finding. The administrative law judge granted respondent’s motion for a directed finding and the Human Rights Commission affirmed.
The Illinois Appellate Court affirmed the Commission and spoke on several issues relating to a motion for a directed finding. First, the court addressed whether the administrative law judge had the authority to hear a motion for a directed finding. The Illinois Administrative Code gives the administrative law judge the power to rule on all proper motions and objections. The court held that the ALJ and the Commission have the authority to consider and rule on a motion for a directed finding. The court reasoned that it would be unnecessary to require a respondent to present his case when the petitioner has failed to make out a prima facie case of discrimination. The ALJ can enter a directed finding before the close of all the evidence.
The court next addressed the issue of how to survive a motion for a directed finding. The court held that a petitioner must establish a prima facie case of discrimination by a preponderance of the evidence in order to survive a motion for a directed finding. According to the court, a prima facie case of age discrimination includes the following elements: (1) complainant is a member of the protected class; (2) complainant was doing his job well enough to satisfy his employer’s legitimate expectations; (3) complainant was discharged or demoted; and (4) similarly-situated younger employees were treated materially better. The court also noted that the McDonnell Douglas-Burdine standard applies in age discrimination cases even in light of the holding in St. Mary’s Honor Center v. Hicks, 509 U.S. 502 (1993).
Finally, the court addressed the standard of review on a motion for a directed finding. The standard of review on an ALJ order for a directed finding depends on whether the ruling was a finding of fact or conclusion of law. Petitioner argued that a decision on a motion for a directed finding should be reviewed de novo like a review of a summary decision. The court disagreed holding that the decision on a directed verdict is a question of fact. Therefore, the appropriate standard of review is whether the factual findings made by the ALJ and affirmed by the Commission are against the manifest weight of the evidence. In this case, the court found that the Commission’s findings were not against the manifest weight of the evidence.
Suzanne Svenson is a third year law student at Northern Illinois University College of Law. She is the Lead Articles Editor for the NIU Law Review and is active in many other law student organizations. She has an interest in labor, employment and municipal law.