In Oregon employment is generally “at will” meaning that either the employer or the employee can terminate the relationship for any reason so long as the reason is not unlawful. However, Oregon also recognizes a common-law wrongful discharge claim if an employee is fired for (1) fulfilling an important public or societal duty or (2) for exercising an employment-related right of important public interest.
But in Lamson v. Crater Lake Motors, Inc., 216 P. 3d 852, 346 Or. 628 (2009), the Oregon Supreme Court seemed to place an interesting caveat on common-law wrongful discharge. The Lamson Court grappled with the case of a car salesman who claimed he was wrongfully discharged for bringing to management’s attention alleged unlawful and unethical conduct that was occurring at the car dealership. Unfortunately for Mr. Lamson the individuals who were engaging in this conduct were not employees of the dealership but independent contractors hired by the dealership. In its analysis the Court implied that it would have upheld the wrongful discharge claim if the objectionable conduct had been done by employees or by the corporation itself. But the fact that the conduct was being done by independent contractors meant that Mr. Lamson was not fulfilling a public duty by bringing forward internal complaints to the dealership’s management.
In our opinion the Court’s analysis in Lamson is drawing the line much too finely. Under the Court’s reasoning, employees who find themselves in similar situations in the future must first determine whether the objectionable conduct is being engaged in by employees or by independent contractors. (As we’ve discussed in a different blog post [click here], answering that question is not always easy even for lawyers.) Only after the answer to that question is clear will an employee know whether to complain about the conduct internally (if done by employees) or externally to the Attorney General or various district attorneys (if done by contractors)!
Imposing such a burden on a concerned employee might be just enough to encourage that employee to look the other way, which we’re pretty sure isn’t the reaction the Oregon Supreme Court intended.