Missouri Supreme Court Issues Opinions On Wrongful Discharge
8/23/2010 - On February 9, 2010, the Missouri Supreme Court issued three opinions that change
the law governing wrongful discharge for violation of public policy. This cause of action is an exception to Missouri’s employment-at-will doctrine that several districts
of the Missouri Court of Appeals have recognized for more than a quarter of a
century, but which had never been formally recognized by the Missouri Supreme
Court. The Supreme Court’s new opinions
not only formally recognize the cause of action, but also set parameters for
its scope, resolve a dispute between the Eastern and Western Districts of the
Missouri Court of Appeals on the causation element, and expand the cause of
action to contracted employees.
The Cause of Action
Missouri’s employment-at-will doctrine allows an employer to
terminate a non-contractual employee (an “at will” employee) for any reason or
no reason at all. The Missouri Human
Rights Act (MHRA) creates one exception to the doctrine: employees may not be
terminated because of their membership in a protected class of persons, i.e.
, their race, color, religion,
national origin, sex, ancestry, age, or disability. Section 213.055, R.S.Mo. 2000. In this respect, Missouri law generally comports with its federal counterpart
as codified in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the ADA, and the ADEA, amongst other laws.
Since the Western
District’s 1985 opinion in Boyle v. Vista
, 700 S.W.2d 859 (Mo. App. W.D. 1985), Missouri courts have
recognized a second exception to the employment-at-will doctrine in the form of
wrongful discharge actions based on violations of public policy. In short, an employer may not terminate an
employee for the employee’s refusal to violate the law or because the employee
reported violations of the law to his superiors or public authorities. Id.
at 878. As a common-law action, a public policy
exception case is not subject to the procedural requirements of the MHRA. Until now, the exact parameters of the action
were spelled out only in opinions from the Missouri Court of Appeals, which at
times differed between the Court’s several districts.
To prevail on a wrongful discharge claim based on the public policy
exception, a plaintiff must prove she engaged in a protected action, that she was
discharged, and that her protected action was the cause of the discharge.
The Missouri Supreme Court’s 2010 triumvirate of opinions affirm these
general elements, further define what constitutes “protected action,” redefine
the causation element, and broaden the action to contractual employees as well
as at-will employees.
The Protected Conduct:
Margiotta v. Christian Hospital Northeast Northwest
The Missouri Supreme Court in Margiotta v. Christian Hosp. Northeast Northwest,
No. SC90249 (Mo. banc, February 9, 2010), affirmed the principle articulated by
appellate opinions since Boyle
the public policy exception to the employment-at-will doctrine is a narrow
one. To qualify for its protection, the employee must show the act the employee refused to
perform or reported was illegal or contrary to a strong mandate of public
policy. Thus, the claims must be based
on a constitutional provision, statute, regulation, or rule promulgated by a
government body; however not every statute or regulation gives rise to a
claim. A plaintiff must cite the
specific law that was violated, and the law cited must amount to a clear
mandate of well-established public policy, the violation of which constitutes
serious misconduct. Vague statutes will
not suffice because they would require judicial interpretation of what public
policy requires and would prevent employers from knowing what duties were
imposed upon them. The Missouri Supreme Court
held this exception is not so broad as to grant protected status to a plaintiff
for making complaints about acts or omissions he merely believes to be
violations of the law or public policy.
Instead, the legal duty is imposed upon employers by laws that clearly
give notice of their requirements.
Furthermore, the Supreme Court held a plaintiff
must demonstrate the public policy mandated by the relied-upon provision is
actually violated by his discharge.
However, the employee need not show he was personally affected by the
violations, nor must there be an allegation that an anti-retaliation provision
in the law has been violated. Rather, the
employee must show how the reported conduct violates the laws upon which he
relies for his claim; a “mere citation” will not suffice.
The Causation Requirement:
Fleshner v. Pepose Vision Institute, P.C.
the Missouri Supreme Court’s opinion in Fleshner
v. Pepose Vision Institute, P.C.
, 304 S.W.3d 81 (Mo. banc 2010), the
Eastern District of the Missouri Court of Appeals had held the protected action,
which was necessary to sustain the cause of action, had to be shown to be the exclusive
cause of the employee’s discharge. Lynch v. Blanke Baer & Bowey Krimko,
, 901 S.W.2d 147 (Mo. App. E.D. 1995).
The Western District of the Missouri Court of Appeals had not
specifically disagreed, but had questioned the Eastern District’s analysis and
suggested the appropriate language for a jury instruction was that the
termination occurred “because of” the employee’s protected conduct. Brenneke
v. Dept. of Mo., Veterans of Foreign Wars
, 984 S.W.2d 134 (Mo. App. W.D.
Supreme Court resolved this conflict by overturning both district’s cases and
holding the appropriate causation standard is the “contributing factor”
analysis, which it created to apply to MHRA actions in the controversial
opinion, Daugherty v. City of Maryland
, 231 S.W.3d 814 (Mo. banc 2007).
The Court’s decision marks a significant departure from both appellate
court decisions and dramatically weakens the causation requirement adopted by
the Eastern District.
Supreme Court reasoned that exclusive causation is not the proper standard in
these cases because it would deter employees from reporting their employers’
violations of the law or from refusing to violate the law themselves. The Court noted the “because of” standard is
used in federal jury instructions and observed that the standard reflects the
general federal standard for Title VII cases that the conduct be
the “motivating factor” in the discharge.
The Court also rejected the “motivating factor” standard without
detailed explanation, as it did in Daugherty. Instead, the Court held the “contributing
factor” standard, as applied in MHRA cases, should be applied in all future wrongful
discharge claims based on public policy violations.
Application of the Doctrine to Contracted Employees:
Keveney v. Missouri Military Academy
Before the Missouri Supreme Court’s opinion in Keveney v. Missouri Military Academy
S.W.3d 98 (Mo. banc 2010), wrongful discharge actions based on public policy violations were limited
to at-will employees. The Supreme Court
has now expanded the action to be available to employees under contract as
well. The Court reasoned: “An employer’s
obligation to refrain from discharging an employee who refuses to participate
in or conceal actions inconsistent with public policy does not depend on the
terms and conditions of the employment contract.” Keveney
304 S.W.3d at 102. Further, the Court
held the remedies in a breach of contract action and a wrongful discharge
action are distinct. The Court noted
breach of contract actions fail to vindicate the violated public interest or
provide a deterrent against future violations, implying, without specifically
holding, that punitive damages would be available to a plaintiff in such a
case. Finally, the Court reasoned it is
inconsistent to allow an at-will employee to recover for wrongful discharge but
deny the same right to a contract employee.