Virginia courts recognize a narrow exception to the employment at will doctrine for employees who claim to have been discharged in violation of public policy. Known as Bowman claims (after the seminal 1985 Bowman v. State Bank of Keysville decision), employees can bring a claim for “wrongful discharge” if they can show that a statute expressly or implicitly protects them from being discharged for conduct covered by the statute.
In the recent case of Anderson v. Reeds Jewelers, Inc., No. 2:16cv739 (E.D.Va. 2017), a former assistant manager of a Virginia Beach jewelry store brought a Bowman claim, alleging that she was fired because she refused to participate in a “scheme” that brought young military personnel into the store to request credit from the employer’s lending partners so they could buy Rolex watches. The employee alleged that the scheme violated eight Virginia statutes, including obtaining money by false pretenses, credit card fraud, deceptive advertising, and money laundering.
The employer moved to dismiss the claims on the grounds that the cited laws were not intended to protect persons like her who were not victims of the conduct made illegal by the statutes. Judge Jackson of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Norfolk Division, denied the employer’s motion, reasoning that “an employee does not have to be the victim of the crime he or she is asked to commit to fall within the statute’s protective reach.” Because the laws cited in the complaint made it illegal for a person to engage in the alleged scheme, the plaintiff could base a Bowman claim on an allegation that she was fired for refusing to participate in statutorily prohibited activity.
The Anderson decision is another example of the willingness of many judges to take a more expansive view of the Bowman exception to the at will doctrine. When presented with facts like these (i.e., predatory lenders conspiring with a retailer to take advantage of young people serving in the armed forces), most judges will be reluctant to throw the case out on a motion to dismiss.