I once represented a client who sued his former employer – an energy company – for unpaid commission and bonuses. Before he hired me, the client filed a pro se administrative claim with the Illinois Department of Labor (DOL) to recover the monies. The DOL found in my client’s favor but could not decide on a specific dollar amount. Several months later, I sued to recover under the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act (Wage Act) and for breach of contract. In that case, which settled favorably for us, the employer unsuccessfully argued my client’s prior DOL case precluded our civil Wage Act claim. The trial court rejected this res judicata argument on the basis that the DOL proceeding was not equivalent to a prior adjudication on the merits.
Borum v. Wideopenwest Illinois, LLC, 2015 IL App (1st) 141482-U, a two-year old, unpublished decision, presents a similar fact pattern and considers whether an ex-employee’s earlier administrative claim prevents a later civil lawsuit against the same employer for the same claim. The case also spotlights the interplay between an employment agreement’s payment terms and the procuring cause doctrine in a sales commissions dispute.
Defendant hired plaintiff to prospect for cable customers. It agreed to pay plaintiff a commission based on customers he signed up. The defendant’s standard employment contract documented the plaintiff’s commission payment rights: plaintiff earned his commission once a customer signed a right-of-entry agreement with the cable supplier.
After lodging an unsuccessful DOL, plaintiff sued the cable company in state court to recover unpaid sales commissions. The trial court granted defendant’s motion to dismiss all counts of the plaintiff’s complaint and plaintiff appealed.
Affirming the trial court’s dismissal, the Court first considered whether the plaintiff’s DOL proceeding barred his civil suit under res judicata or collateral estoppel principles. Section 14 of the Wage Act authorizes an employee to file either a DOL claim or a civil action, but not both, to recover underpayment damages along with 2% per month of the underpaid amount.
The DOL ruled against the plaintiff. It found the right-of-entry agreements were not consummated until signed by both a customer and the defendant employer.)
The Court found the DOL hearing was too informal and not “judicial” or “adjudicatory” enough to defeat plaintiff’s later civil suit under the res judicata rule.
Res judicata requires a final judgment on the merits by a court of competent jurisdiction. Collateral estoppel precludes litigation of an issue previously decided in an earlier proceeding. Res judicata and collateral estoppel can extend to administrative proceedings that are judicial, adjudicatory or quasi-judicial in nature.
So where administrative proceedings involve sworn testimony, are adversarial in nature and include cross-examination of witnesses, they can bar a subsequent civil suit.
Here, since the DOL conducted only an informal hearing with no cross-examination or sworn witnesses, the DOL had no adjudicatory power over the parties and so its finding for defendant had no preclusive effect against the plaintiff’s lawsuit.
The court also rejected plaintiff’s procuring cause argument. Designed to soften the harsh impact of at-will contracts, the procuring cause doctrine allows a departed salesperson to recover commissions on sales he/she consummated before his/her employment ends even where the money isn’t paid to the employer until after the salesperson departs. The procuring cause rule is only a gap filler though: it’s a default rule that only applies where a contract is silent on when commissions are paid.
Since plaintiff’s contract with defendant specifically provided plaintiff would be paid commissions earned during (but not after) the period of the employment, the court found this specific enough to vitiate the procuring cause rule.
Lastly, the Court considered whether defendant violated its handbook which stated compensation terms could only be changed on 30 days advance notice. Plaintiff argued that the defendant made a unilateral change to its compensation policy without giving plaintiff the requisite notice.
The key question for the Court was whether the employee manual was an enforceable contract. For an employee handbook to vest an employee with binding contract rights, (1) the handbook promise must be clear enough that an employee reasonably believes and offer has been made, (2) the handbook offer must be distributed to the employee so that he/she actually receives it or is aware of its contents; the (3) the employee must accept the offer by commencing work after learning of the policy statement.
Since the plaintiff conceded he wasn’t aware of the employee manual until the day he was fired, the court found he couldn’t reasonably show the handbook provided him with enforceable contract rights. (¶¶ 83-85).
- Administrative claims can support a res judicata defense but only where the administrative hearing is adversarial (judicial) in nature; such as where witnesses give sworn testimony that can be tested on cross-examination;
- The procuring cause rule won’t trump specific contract payment terms;
- A written employer policy on compensation adjustments isn’t binding against an employer where the aggrieved employee isn’t aware of the policy until on or after he/she’s fired.