Differences in Public Policy Can Affect Claims of Wrongful Discharge

termination formMost jurisdictions, including Connecticut, recognize a tort of “wrongful discharge” as an exception to the principle of employment at will. Although employment at will generally allows either the employer or the employee to terminate the employment relationship at any time, employers may not use employment at will to justify the termination of an employee for a reason that violates the public policy of the state.  For example, an employee who loses his job because he refuses to  participate in his employer’s attempt to falsify a tax return or make a fraudulent  insurance claim can sue for wrongful discharge and obtain damages resulting from the loss of employment.

Falsifying tax returns or insurance claims is obviously illegal, and therefore a violation of the public policy of the state.  For the tort of wrongful discharge, the public policy of the state is found in statutes, the constitution, and judicial decisions. However, in the absence of a violation of the mandates of public policy, employment may be terminated at the employer’s discretion.

Many employers list basic work rules in their employee handbooks, in order to give employees fair warning of the expectations for conduct in the workplace.  One such typical work rule is a prohibition on possession of firearms or other dangerous weapons on the employer’s premises.  This is a particularly sensitive matter in the State of Connecticut, where we would not expect any legal recourse for  an employee who was fired for violating a company firearms prohibition.

However, public policy can differ significantly from state to state.  A company in Columbus, Mississippi, which had a company policy prohibiting firearms on the property, fired an employee when the company learned that he had parked his truck in the employee parking lot with a firearm locked inside. The employee filed a wrongful discharge lawsuit, which was allowed to proceed in a decision issued last week by the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, Swindol v. Aurora Flight Sciences Corporation.  The court’s decision was based on a statute in the Mississippi Code which barred employers from maintaining a policy which prohibited employees from storing firearms in a locked vehicle in a company parking area.

Mississippi had a clear public policy, articulated in a statute, which protected the employee who had locked his gun in his car in the employee parking lot, and his termination for that reason violated the public policy and allowed a wrongful discharge claim.  Besides illustrating the variety of employment laws among the states, this case also has a more pragmatic take-away.  A legal review of the company’s  employee conduct policies would presumably have identified the problem with this work rule, and allowed the company to modify the rule and avoid litigation.