Most employers are well-versed in statutory laws which prohibit termination of an employee for reasons such as a discrimination or retaliation. But its lesser known that some states like Maryland have a catch-all cause of action for situations where an employee claims her termination violates public policy, but no statute provides a remedy. Under those circumstances, an employee can sue for wrongful discharge, which is what occurred recently in Kelly v. Emerge, Inc., No. RDB-19-2090 (10/10/18).
In this case, Lisa Kelly was working her shift as a residential counselor when two residents started a fight. Kelly instructed one of the residents to contact the police, after which Kelly filed a report with her company. Kelly was placed on leave the next day and shortly thereafter, she was terminated. The company claimed the termination was a result of Kelly’s failure to properly handle the altercation.
Following her discharge, Kelly filed suit in Maryland’s federal district court, alleging wrongful termination for reporting criminal activity, and for making a mandated report of abuse under Fam. Law § 14-302. Although Maryland recognizes the tort of wrongful discharge, the requirement to show an employee’s termination violates a “clear mandate of public policy”, but has no statutory remedy, makes the claim notoriously difficult to prove. Notwithstanding this high hurdle, the court held Kelly could proceed on her claim.
The Court agreed with Kelly that Maryland has clear public goals to protect witnesses who report criminal activity, and to protect vulnerable adults from abuse. And while Kelly failed to follow the exact reporting requirements under the law, the Court explained that an employee need not “perfectly exercise” her rights or “flawlessly execute” her duties, to plead a wrongful termination claim. Finally, the court cited the close timing of the protected activity and termination, and the company’s unemployment hearing testimony that Kelly was terminated for the way she handled the altercations, as reason to allow the claim to proceed. The case is a good reminder for employers to proceed with caution when terminating an employee who has recently complained about or reported conduct which could be construed as unlawful