An employee who is terminated from employment does not have a legal right to sue the employer simply because he believes that the termination was “unfair.” While union contracts typically contain a provision that discipline, including termination, be for just cause, there is no similar statute or rule of law that protects non-union employees generally. To the contrary, the general legal rule is employment-at-will, which allows employment to be terminated without liability, subject to legislative protections such as anti-discrimination or whistleblower statutes. An individual who wishes to sue his former employer must avoid an employment-at-will defense by basing his claim on one or more specific rights recognized in law.
One such exception to the general rule that has been recognized in Connecticut (and most other jurisdictions) is when an employee can allege an improper reason for dismissal, an improper reason being one that contravenes an important public policy which can be found in a statute, a constitutional provision, or a judicially-recognized notion of public policy.
In the recent case of Kurt Schulz v. Auto World, Inc., decided in the superior court in Hartford last October, the plaintiff was a car salesman who observed that packages were delivered to his supervisor in the workplace which contained rifles, handguns, ammunition clips and suppressors. Moreover, the packages of firearms were kept under the supervisor’s desk, not locked up, so that a customer or employee could gain access to the packages. The plaintiff complained to the business owner of his concerns about the safety of employees and the general public, but was told to mind his own business, and was later fired.
Although the plaintiff was an employee at will, he argued that his termination violated a public policy in favor of workplace safety that could be found in a Connecticut statute, C.G.S. 31-49. This is an old statute, dating from 1902, with an archaic title: Care Required of a Master for his Servant’s Safety. The statute requires a “master” – i.e., an employer – to provide his “servant” – i.e., his employee – with a reasonably safe workplace and reasonably competent co-workers.
Many of the cases decided under Section 31-49 involved conditions in factories and at construction sites, and the statute has been largely superseded by OSHA, but the Court ruled that the potential danger posed by the unattended firearms, and the fact that the plaintiff was discharged soon after he raised his concerns about a significant number of firearms in the workplace (which was an auto dealership, not a gun store), was sufficient to state a claim for wrongful termination in violation of the public policy requiring an employer to provide a safe workplace. The Court overruled the defendant’s motion to strike the complaint.
In addition to his public policy argument, the plaintiff also invoked C.G.S. 31-51q, a statute which provides the equivalent of First Amendment rights to employees who suffer discipline or discharge for speaking out on matters of public concern, as long as the employee’s speech does not interfere with his job performance or the working relationship between employer and employee. The Court found that in this context, the plaintiff’s speech concerning firearms was, as a matter of law, speech on a topic of public concern which merited the protections of the statute. The defendant’s motion to strike the complaint on this issue was also denied.
The take-away from this decision for employers is that even an at-will employee may be able to find a basis for litigating a termination. Ideally, a termination will be supported by a well-documented and neutral business-related reason which will make sense to a jury of the former employee’s peers.