Monday, June 25, 2007

Employment at-will fights back

Ever since the Ohio Supreme Court decided Wiles v. Medina Auto Parts five years ago, Ohio appellate courts have been chipping away at the common law wrongful discharge tort. The latest effort to give some meaning back to "employment at-will" is DeMell v. Cleveland Clinic Foundation, which held that a statute that provides only a criminal penalty, and gives no civil redress to the aggrieved employee, sufficiently vindicates the at-issue public policy so as to render a tort action over the discharge unnecessary.

Traditionally, any employer can terminate the employment of any at-will employee for any reason. In 1990, however, the Ohio Supreme Court recognized an exception in tort to the employment at-will doctrine and allowed actions for a wrongful discharge that violates public policy. To assert this tort claim, the employee must show, among other things, that the dismissal jeopardizes a clear public policy manifested in a state or federal constitution, statute, or regulation, or the common law. In 2002, the Ohio Supreme Court in Wiles v. Medina Auto Parts limited the scope of the public policies that can support such a tort claim by holding that the claim is not available if there exists any alternate means to promote the claimed public policy. The Court reasoned that if a statutory remedy that adequately protects society's interests already exists, there is no need to recognize a common law tort claim for the same purpose.

Catherine DeMell was a 30-year employee of the Cleveland Clinic. After the Clinic terminated her employment, she claimed that she was wrongfully discharged for complaining that she was underpaid and for being forced to falsify her time records. She claimed that the public policy set forth in the Ohio Minimum Wage Standards Act supported her claim. The court of appeals disagreed and affirmed the dismissal of her claim, because the specific statute provides a criminal penalty for violations. Thus, even though DeMell could not personally be made whole under that specific statute, the statute's criminal enforcement protected society's overall interest. This case is part of growing trend of Ohio courts' following the lead of Wiles, limiting the public policies that will support a wrongful discharge claim, and giving employers more latitude in terminating employees.

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