Protecting Against Violent Persons: The Illinois Workplace Violence Prevention Act

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On his Facebook page, a recently-fired employee posts, “If revenge is sweet and a dish best served cold well, get ready …, the ice cream man is coming,” and texts a former co-worker about “beheading the boss and throwing [him] off the 19th floor. [1]”  How would your nonprofit handle such an alarming threat of violence against the organization or its employees?   Unfortunately, threats of violence in the workplace are on the rise – and nonprofits are not immune.  As employers and property owners, nonprofit organizations occasionally face the possibility of violence from disgruntled employees, participants in their activities, and others who may take offense. Recent high-profile examples come all too easily to mind, like the horrific workplace shooting in Sacramento and the Charleston church prayer meeting slaughter. 

A new legal tool is now available in Illinois to address serious threats:  the Illinois Workplace Violence Prevention Act, enacted in 2014.  In a nutshell, the Act provides for a special court restraining order – with police back-up – for churches, other religious institutions, and other organizations against persons shown to pose a “credible risk of harm” to others.  In addition to implementing general security measures and organizational policies, discussed here, nonprofits may now also proactively address specific threats against the organization or its employees through the Act, as discussed more fully below. 

The Act’s Requirements

The Act’s protections are aimed at protecting an organization’s workforce, customers, guests, and property by limiting access to the organization’s facility, specifically through a court-issued restraining order.  Such order may be obtained only by an “employer,” which is defined as any individual or organization with at least 15 “employees.”  The term “employees” is expansively defined to include (a) paid workers, (b) directors of the “employer’s” board, (c) independent contractors of the “employer,” and even (d) volunteers at the “employer’s” place of work.  This generous definition thus allows the Act to apply to most nonprofits, at least through its board and volunteers.

An organization may obtain a workplace protection restraining order against a person, known as the “respondent,” upon showing at least one of the following conditions: (1) an “employee” (as defined above) has “suffered unlawful violence and the respondent has made a credible threat of violence to be carried out at the employee’s workplace”; (2) the employee “believes that the respondent has made a credible threat of violence to be carried out at the employee’s workplace”; or (3) “an unlawful act of violence has been carried out at the workplace or the respondent has made a credible threat of violence at the workplace.”  Through its expansive provisions, the Act thus is squarely aimed to helping organizations avoid tragically violent situations, where a worker (whether paid or volunteer) becomes aware of threats or has already been injured.

Getting a Workplace Protection Restraining Order

Injunctive relief through general court orders, as well as through domestic orders of protection in family situations, has long been available upon a showing of sufficient harm or risk of harm. The Act provides churches, social service organizations, and others serving potentially violent persons with special procedures and remedies for streamlined court relief, resulting police protection, and hopefully safer facilities.  The Act may reflect an emerging trend among the states, with only California and Indiana thus far having similar laws.

Under the Act, an organization concerned about violent harm must first file a special emergency court petition in civil court.  The petition must be accompanied by a supporting affidavit reflecting that (a) it is an “employer” (b) it has “employees,” and (c) it faces a “credible threat of violence” at the workplace, all as defined above.  The affidavit should be detailed, accompanied by any available supporting documentation – e.g., a person has recently posted statements on Facebook that he plans to kill someone at the organization’s workplace.  The threats should be sufficiently specific that a judge (a stranger to the situation) could easily discern that people are realistically in danger of being seriously harmed.  

In terms of relief sought, the petition should specifically identify the property where the alleged offender is not to be allowed access, such as by address and other description (e.g., “the worship facility located at ________”).  In addition, the petition may include specific contact to be prohibited, such as no phone calls or emails, as well as the persons covered, such as the petitioner’s employers or board of directors.  (The petition may also seek recovery for property damage already caused by the alleged offender, provided that he or she receives notice of such claim.)

The petition need not be sent to the person who allegedly may commit the serious harm, identified as the respondent.  Instead, the petitioning organization may take its petition and supporting affidavit straight to an Illinois county courthouse, for immediate hearing.  The organization should be represented by an attorney, and it should have a witness available who can testify about such credible risk of harm.

Upon granting of relief, the court will issue an emergency order that is good for 14 to 21 days and provides for notification to the police department.  The organization may seek to coordinate further with local police officials, such as in connection with upcoming events at its facility.  The respondent will then be notified of the court order, with specific directions to stay away from the facility and to cease any violence or threats of violence.  A respondent who violates the court order is subject to arrest and contempt of court.

The court will later convene a second hearing, at which the respondent may attend.  The purpose of this hearing is to allow the respondent to present his or her side and then, depending on the facts elicited, to issue a longer-term restraining order. Under the Act, such “plenary” order may last up to one year.  The respondent is subject to criminal sanctions for violating the order, as well as for any other unlawful activity. 

Subsequently, either party may seek modifications of the plenary order such as to adjust its scope and remedial effect.  The organization may later wish to seek renewal of the plenary order, through a new petition. 

Helpful Tool?

A workplace protection restraining order should not be sought lightly, as it involves significant attorney and court resources to obtain and may antagonize the alleged offender further.   But on the other hand, the Act may provide a life-saving remedy protecting organizational participants against harm and keeping a potentially violent person from hurting others.  Such relief – if sought by an organization - should augment organizations’ numerous other risk management measures, such as security protocols, safety precautions, worker training, and insurance coverage. Safety is always paramount, regardless of the specific tools used.