State public policies regarding wrongful discharge claims are—literally and figuratively—all over the map. For instance, in some states, an employee can sue for wrongful discharge under contract law if he or she can show an implied contract for permanent employment and improper or arbitrary termination. Other states disallow this type of claim. A recent hot topic public policy debate involves the validity of a wrongful discharge claim when other remedies are available to the employee. A number of recent cases throughout the United States demonstrate the variance in state policies regarding the viability of wrongful discharge claims.
Existence of other remedies does not matter
In a recent Oregon case, Kemp v Masterbrand Cabinets, Inc., a female employee filed claims for pregnancy discrimination, retaliation, and wrongful discharge. The employer argued that the court should dismiss her wrongful discharge claim because she had other adequate statutory remedies and avenues for relief under Title VII. The Oregon courts disagreed, stating that the fact that she could have asserted a statutory Title VII claim did not preclude her from asserting a common law claim for wrongful discharge.
Existence of other remedies does matter
Right next door in Washington state, however, courts came to the opposite conclusion only six days after the Oregon decision. In Worley v Providence Physician Services Company, a nurse brought a wrongful termination claim after she was fired following her reporting of improper Medicare billing and inadequate care of patients. However, the Washington courts required her to show she had no other adequate means of relief in order to succeed on her wrongful discharge claim. Because she could have possibly filed suit under a state whistleblowing statute, the courts decided there were other means to promote public policy regarding proper billing and standards of care, and therefore she was not able to prevail on her wrongful discharge claim.
Existence of other civil remedies
In another recent case, Kunkle v Q-Mark, Inc, Ohio complicates the issue even further by distinguishing between alternative criminal and civil remedies. The plaintiff in that suit was fired on November 9, 2012, three days after Barack Obama won reelection. She claimed her supervisor had threatened employees who planned to vote for Obama and fired her because she admitted she voted a straight Democratic ticket. Several statutes applied to these allegations, providing potential criminal fines and imprisonment under state and federal voting laws. The employer argued that because they were already subjected to statutory punishment, the court should dismiss the wrongful termination claim. The court disagreed, holding that because there was no other civil penalty. Had there been an alternative civil penalty, however, the court may have disallowed the wrongful discharge claim.
Wrongful discharge policies and law can be complicated and can widely vary. If you believe your employer unlawfully terminated you, you should contact the employment lawyers at HKM as soon as possible.