Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Ohio Supreme Court clears up “clarity” element of wrongful discharge tort

Last summer, an Ohio appellate court concluded that retaliation against employees who raise concerns over fire safety violates a clear public policy generally favoring fire safety in the workplace. Last week, the Ohio Supreme Court took away the employee’s victory, and provides ammunition for employers to seek dismissal of vague and nebulous public policy claims.

Before we get to the specifics of Dohme v. Eurand Am., Inc. (9/15/11) [pdf], some background. In Ohio, the termination of an at-will employee usually does not give rise to an action for damages. If, however, a discharge that jeopardizes a clear public policy articulated in the Ohio or United States Constitutions, federal or state statutes, administrative rules and regulations, or common law may create a cause of action for wrongful discharge in violation of that public policy.

In Dohme, the plaintiff merely claimed that his termination “jeopardized workplace safety.” The appellate court saved his claim by articulating a public policy favoring workplace fire safety, supported by citations to various state and federal statutes and regulations. The Supreme Court correctly concluded that is not a court’s job to engage in a search and rescue for a public policy to support a wrongful termination claim:

As the plaintiff, Dohme has the obligation to specify the sources of law that support the public policy he relies upon in his claim. Because Dohme did not back up his assertion of a public policy of workplace safety in his summary judgment documents with specific sources of law, he has not articulated the clarity element with specificity. Unless the plaintiff asserts a public policy and identifies federal or state constitutional provisions, statutes, regulations, or common law that support the policy, a court … may not fill in the blanks on its own….

It’s a big deal whenever the Ohio Supreme Court issues an employment law decision. It only happens once or twice a year. This case, however, really is not that big of a deal. This case is more about the proper role of courts in litigation and less about the wrongful discharge tort. It sends a message to plaintiffs that it is not the role of courts to make sense of their claims for them.