For months now, employers and their counsel have been awaiting the Illinois Supreme Court's ruling in McDonald v. Symphony Bronzeville Park, LLC regarding whether the Illinois Workers' Compensation Act preempts claims for liquidated damages under the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA). On February 3, 2022, in a unanimous decision, the Court answered that question in the negative.
Generally, the Workers' Compensation Act provides the exclusive means by which an employee can recover damages for work-related injuries. Over the years, Illinois courts, including the state Supreme Court, have addressed whether and when an employee may bring a civil action for harm resulting from a work-related injury, and have held that employees may sue their employers outside of the Workers' Compensation Act if they can show that their injury was not accidental; did not arise from or was not sustained in the course of employment; or was not "compensable" under the Workers' Compensation Act. Courts have not often addressed the last exception—the question of "compensability." Therefore, it has been the subject of some debate whether "compensability" should be defined in terms of injuries that otherwise meet the requirements for coverage under the Workers' Compensation Act—because they are accidental injuries that arise from and were sustained in the course of employment—or should be construed as a subset of such injuries based on the type of harm suffered by the employee.
Examining the plain language of the Workers' Compensation Act as well as "the reason for the law, the problems sought to be remedied, the purposes to be achieved, and the consequences of construing the statute one way or another," the state Supreme Court concluded that injuries suffered under the BIPA are not of the type that the Workers' Compensation Act was intended to remedy. The Court looked to the purposes of the Workers' Compensation Act, noting that its main purpose is to provide financial assistance to injured employees until they can return to work and that relief is awarded according to a fee schedule that corresponds to death, to the extent of injuries to particular body parts, and to the employee's inability to work. According to the Court, the "personal and societal injuries caused by violating the [Illinois BIPA] are different in nature and scope from the physical and psychological work injuries that are compensable under the Compensation Act."
The Court also noted that as a rule, newer laws control over older ones and more specific laws control over more general ones when it comes to interpreting statutes and concluded that if the Illinois legislature had intended to have the existing Workers' Compensation Act preempt the BIPA, it would have said so. But the legislature enacted the Illinois BIPA with specific reference to its applicability in the employment context without any mention of the Workers' Compensation Act. The Court acknowledged the effect that its ruling was likely to have on employers, but noted its finding in Rosenbach that it is "clear that the legislature intended for this provision to have substantial force," and suggested that "whether a different balance should be struck under the [BIPA] given the category of injury is a question more appropriately addressed to the legislature."
Cases under the BIPA generally have been stayed pending the outcome of several issues that are currently before the Illinois Supreme Court. In addition to the applicability of the Workers' Compensation Act, the Court is set to address two additional questions that will have a significant impact on pending BIPA litigation. In Tims v. Black Horse Carriers, the Court will review an appellate court holding regarding the applicable statute of limitations for BIPA claims. In Cothron v. White Castle, the Court will decide whether claims related to the collection of biometric data accrue at the time the employer initially collects the employee's biometric data or each time an employee utilizes a biometric device (for example, each time an employee swipes his or her finger to clock in or clock out on a biometric time clock). So while the Court's ruling in Symphony Bronzeville is likely to cause some trial courts to allow stayed cases to proceed, where questions of timeliness and accrual potentially will be dispositive, employers may want to consider asking the courts to continue to wait until those important questions are settled by the state's high court.
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