Buried deep, deep, and we mean deep in a lengthy decision resolving a procedurally convoluted case, the Court seemed to open the door a bit for plaintiffs seeking to prove claims of common-law wrongful discharge. As we’ve previously discussed, one way to succeed on such a claim is for the plaintiff to prove, among other things, that he was discharged for fulfilling an important public duty.
Prior to the Court’s decision in Lucas v. Lake County, the approach to interpreting this element of the claim seemed to go something like this: 1) the plaintiff must plead and prove that constitutional or statutory provisions or case law required him to take a specific action to fulfil the public duty; 2) he must have actually taken that specific action; and 3) he must have been discharged because he took that specific action.
In the Lucas decision the Court stated that the plaintiff need not prove a specific legal obligation to perform that specific action. It was sufficient for the plaintiff to prove that “‘the sources of law that express the asserted “public policy” must in some sense speak directly to those acts'” (emphasis in original). Stated differently the plaintiff could now plead and prove that the laws he cites in some sense spoke directly to the acts he took that resulted in his discharge.
For example, in Lucas the plaintiff pled that he was terminated in retaliation for his efforts to prevent inappropriate flirtatious behavior by sheriff’s deputies towards inmates and to investigate an incident in which one deputy had exchanged contraband (i.e. tobacco) for oral sex from a female inmate in the county jail. The Court held that plaintiff’s pleading of a variety of Oregon statutes (i.e. those defining “sheriff,” “police officer,” and “law enforcement unit”) was sufficient to establish that the plaintiff had “a public duty to enforce the criminal laws, which includes the prevention and detection of crime.”
In other words the statutes requiring a sheriff—and by extension his deputies—to enforce the criminal laws in some sense spoke directly to the plaintiffs actions of investigating the potentially criminal incident between another deputy and the female inmate.
Of course in the future the Court might seek to distinguish this case in some way, but for now it seems like the door for plaintiffs to prove common-law wrongful discharge claims is open just a bit wider.