Kenrick Roberts was director of medical programs at Malcolm
X College. He reported directly to and
worked closely with Dr. Micah Young, the dean of health sciences and career
programs at Malcolm X and Dr. Mario De La Haye, the associate dean of health
sciences and career programs. Roberts was
responsible for vetting potential instructors for teaching various courses and
A course of study called HeaPro 101 included instruction on
phlebotomy and electrocardiograms (EKG).
On or about January 15, 2015, Roberts alleged that he became
aware of complaints that the instructor assigned to teach HeaPro 101 was
unqualified to teach the course and curriculum. He met with the HeaPro 101
instructor and questioned her qualifications.
On or about January 15, 2015, Roberts sent an e-mail to Dr.
Young and Dr. De La Haye complaining about the unqualified instructor.
Following his January 15, 2015 e-mail, Roberts made verbal
complaints to Dr. Anthony Munroe, president of Malcolm X College. He informed Dr. Munroe that he had been
intentionally excluded from the hiring process of the unqualified instructor
and he refused to support the assignment.
On February 25, 2015, Roberts sent an e-mail to the
president, vice president, and associate provost again complaining about the
unqualified instructor assigned to teach HeaPro 101.
Upon receipt of the February 25, 2015, e-mail. Dr.
Christopher Robinson-Easley, vice president of Malcolm X College, requested
that Roberts meet with her regarding the complaints in the e-mail. Dr.
Robinson-Easley was the individual who had selected and assigned the
After receiving the request from Dr. Robinson-Easley, Roberts
sent an e-mail to Aaron Allen, executive director of labor and employee
relations. Roberts told Allen that he felt uncomfortable about Dr.
Following the meeting with Dr. Robinson-Easley, Roberts was
excluded from important meetings, decisions, and discussions regarding programs
that were under his responsibilities as director of medical programs.
Roy Walker, the associate dean of health sciences and career
programs at Malcolm X College, informed Roberts that Dr. Robinson-Easley “has an
axe to grind with you” because of the HeaPro 101 complaints. On June 28, 2015,
Dr. Munroe instructed Roberts to file an equal employment opportunity complaint
against Dr. Robinson-Easley for retaliation in connection with Roberts’
complaints. On August 7, 2015, Roberts was told that he was terminated from his
position as director of medical programs at Malcolm X College.
Roberts filed his original complaint on September 15, 2015. He
brought three causes of action: retaliatory discharge, violation of the
Whistleblower Act, and wrongful termination.
A second amended complaint alleging the same causes of
action as the prior complaints was filed on June 27, 2016. Defendant moved to
dismiss the retaliatory discharge claim and whistleblower claim pursuant to
section 2-615(a) of the Illinois Code of Civil Procedure. The circuit court
granted the motion with prejudice. Roberts appealed.
Illinois follows the at-will employment rule, which means a
noncontracted employee is one who serves at the employer’s will, and the
employer may discharge such an employee for any reason or no reason. Illinois
recognizes an exception to the general at-will employment rule when the
discharge violates a clear mandate of public policy.
In order to state a cause of action for retaliatory
discharge, an employee must allege (1) the employer discharged the employee,
(2) in retaliation for the employee’s activities, and (3) the discharge
violates a clear mandate of public policy.
The only issue concerning Roberts’ retaliatory discharge
claim was whether it stated a violation of a clear mandate of Illinois public
policy. The existence and ascertainment of public policy is a question for the
court to decide.
Roberts alleged his discharge for complaining about the
unqualified instructors violated a specific public policy: “the right to obtain
the benefits of a post-secondary education through federal and state funded
He cited to Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965 (20
U.S.C. §§ 1070-1099d) and the appeals court took judicial notice of the Higher
Education Loan Act (Act) (110 ILCS 945/0.01).
The Illinois General Assembly has concluded the purpose of
providing public funds for higher education is to provide the fullest
opportunity for recipients to learn and develop their intellectual and mental
capacities and skills. The purpose of establishing both state and federal loan
programs is to ensure individuals without the private means of paying for a
college education are given access to funds to better develop themselves
intellectually so as to provide a greater contribution to our state and
The court concluded the public policy behind the federal
Higher Education Act of 1965 and Illinois’s Higher Education Loan Act would be
seriously undermined if defendant was allowed to act in the manner alleged in Roberts’
If defendant accepts loan money but uses it to hire
incompetent and unqualified individuals who cannot properly instruct students
who are enrolled in classes like HeaPro 101, defendant has essentially
defrauded both the student and the taxpayer.
The appeals court found Roberts’ complaint demonstrated a
clear mandate of public policy and reversed the dismissal of his retaliatory
Roberts also argued the circuit court erred in dismissing
his Whistleblower Act claim. The Whistleblower Act provides: “An employer may
not retaliate against an employee for refusing to participate in an activity
that would result in a violation of a State or federal law, rule, or
regulation.” 740 ILCS 174/20. In order to sustain a cause of action under the
Whistleblower Act, a plaintiff must establish (1) a refusal to participate in
an activity that would result in a violation of a state or federal law, rule,
or regulation and (2) the employer retaliated against the employee because of
The Whistleblower Act protects employees who either contact
a government agency to report the activity or refuse to participate in that
activity. There was no allegation in the second amended complaint that
defendant offered or demanded Roberts’ participation in the allegedly wrongful
While Roberts alleged he refused “to cover things up,” “be
quiet,” and “look the other way,” there was no allegation the defendant asked,
requested, or demanded such action.
In order to state a claim under the Whistleblower Act, there
must be a request or demand by the employer that the employee engage in the
illegal or unlawful conduct. In this case, Roberts failed to allege the
defendant ever made a request or demand he approve or sanction the hiring of
the allegedly unqualified instructor. Accordingly, he did not state a claim
under the Whistleblower Act.
The court reversed the dismissal of Roberts’ retaliatory
discharge claim but affirmed dismissal of the whistleblower claim.
The case is Kenrick
Roberts v. Board of Trustees Community College District No. 508, 2018 IL App
· Michael R. Lied· Howard & Howard Attorneys PLLC· One Technology Plaza, 211 Fulton Street, Suite 600, Peoria, IL 61602· (309) 999-6311· MLied@howardandhoward.com