Thursday, September 27, 2007

Ohio Supreme Court rejects common law wrongful discharge age discrimination claim

In a 6-1 decision published today, the Ohio Supreme Court, in Leininger v. Pioneer National Latex, held: "A common-law tort claim for wrongful discharge based on Ohio's public policy against age discrimination does not exist, because the remedies in R.C. Chapter 4112 provide complete relief for a statutory claim of age discrimination. The Court concluded "that is is unnecessary to recognize a common-law tort claim when remedy provisions are an essential part of the statutes upon which the plaintiff depends for the public policy claim and when those remedies adequately protect society's interest by discouraging the wrongful conduct." Because R.C. 4112.02(N) and 4112.99 have broad remedial language allowing for the full panoply of legally recognized relief (i.e., back pay, front pay, compensatory damages, and punitive damages), the age discrimination statute adequately protects Ohio's strong policy against age discrimination and therefore a parallel common law claim is not needed.

This case is significant for two reasons. First, it continues the Ohio Supreme Court's trend towards the reinvigoration of employment at-will, which started in Wiles v. Medina Auto Parts (as an interesting side note, the same lawyer was on the losing side of both Wiles and Leininger). Given the decision in Wiles, though, Leininger's result is not a surprise.

Perhaps more significant is the underlying effect of this decision on the statute of limitations for age discrimination claims. Common law wrongful discharge claims have a four-year statute of limitations. Because state age discrimination claims are now limited to the statute, such claims will be controlled by the statute's 180-day statute of limitations for age claims (unless the employee elects to pursue the lesser remedies of reinstatement/back pay and attorneys' fees available under R.C. 4112.14 and its six-year statute of limitations). It is safe to assume that this case will also do away with public policy claims for all other forms of discrimination, although that effect will most likely not be felt, since R.C. 4112.99 has a six-year statute of limitations for all types of discrimination other than age. As a result of Leininger, and at least as far as state age claims are concerned, employers will have a greater degree of certainty regarding adverse employment decisions after six months (as opposed to four years) have elapsed.