Proper Analysis of Wrongful Discharge Claims in Washington: Lessons from Martin v. Gonzaga
The Washington State Supreme Court recently clarified the law applicable to wrongful discharge claims in a case called Martin v. Gonzaga, — W.2d —, 425 P.2d 827 (2018).
Washington employees are generally employed “at will” meaning, absent an agreement to the contrary, employees and employers can terminate employment at any time and for any reason (or no reason at all) so long as that reason is not discrimination based on a protected characteristic (race, sex, disability, etc.).
In 1984, the Court carved out another narrow exception to the at-will doctrine: wrongful discharge in violation of public policy (referred to herein simply as “wrongful discharge claims”). Thompson v. St. Regis Paper Co., 102 Wn.2d 219, 685 P.2d 1081 (1984). In that case, the Court held that an employee could assert a wrongful discharge claim against her employer if she could establish that her “discharge may have been motivated by reasons that contravene a clear mandate of public policy.” Id. at 232. Once an employee makes such a showing, “the burden shifts to the employer to prove that dismissal was for reasons other than those alleged by the employee.” Id. at 232-233.
Wrongful discharge claims have typically been limited to four categories: “(1) where employees are fired for refusing to commit an illegal act; (2) where employees are fired for performing a public duty or obligation, such as serving jury duty; (3) where employees are fired for exercising a legal right or privilege, such as filing workers’ compensation claims; and (4) where employees are fired in retaliation for reporting employer misconduct, i.e., whistle-blowing.” Gardner v. Loomis Armored, Inc., 128 Wn.2d 931, 936, 913 P.2d 377 (1996).
In Gardner, the Court adopted a four-part framework to resolve wrongful discharge claims that did not fit neatly into one of those four recognized categories. Idi at 941. Gardner was a truly extraordinary case: the plaintiff was a guard and driver of an armored car who was terminated for breaking a company rule — i.e. he left the armored car unattended — in order to save a woman from a life-threatening hostage situation. The situation in Gardner did not fit neatly into any of the four recognized categories. The plaintiff was not fired for refusing to commit an illegal act, he was not fired for performing a public duty (our state does not impose a general duty to rescue), he was not fired for exercising a legal right, and he was not fired in retaliation for reporting employer misconduct. Nonetheless the Court recognized that there was a strong public policy interest in favor of preserving human life. Thus, the Court adopted a secondary wrongful discharge framework called the Perritt framework.
In cases that do not fit neatly into one of the four recognized categories, Washington courts apply the Perritt framework: “(1) The plaintiffs must prove the existence of a clear public policy (the clarity element). (2) The plaintiffs must prove that discouraging the conduct in which they engaged would jeopardize the public policy (the jeopardy element). (3) The plaintiffs must prove that the public-policy-linked conduct caused the dismissal (the causation element). (4) The defendant must not be able to offer an overriding justification for the dismissal (the absence of justification element).” Id. at 941.
In Martin v. Gonzaga the Court iterated that the Perritt framework should not be applied to a claim that falls within one of the four recognized categories for wrongful discharge.
Wrongful discharge can be a major source of potential liability for employers (last year a jury awarded $16M to two former Port of Seattle employees who alleged they were wrongfully discharged in contravention of public policy). If you have questions about the at-will doctrine or the parameters of a wrongful discharge claim, please do not hesitate to let us know.