Thompson v. St. Regis Paper Co
In Thompson v. St. Regis Paper Co., 102 Wn.2d 219, 685 P.2d 1081 (1984), the Court recognized a cause of action in tort for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy.
"The policy underlying the exception is that the common law doctrine cannot be used to shield an employer's action which otherwise frustrates a clear manifestation of public policy." Id. at 231.
The Court explained:
"The exception has been utilized in instances where application of the terminable at will doctrine would have led to a result clearly inconsistent with a stated public policy and the community interest it advances."
To clarify the purpose underlying the public policy exception, the Court compared two cases from other jurisdictions:
In Harless v. First Nat'l Bank, 162 W. Va. 116, 246 S.E.2d 270 (W. Va. 1978) a bank employee was discharged after attempting to make his employer comply with the state consumer credit and protection laws.
The West Virginia Supreme Court held that despite the general rule, the bank could be liable for wrongful discharge because the discharge would otherwise frustrate a clear manifestation of public policy, protection of consumers of credit.
In contrast to the result reached in Harless, when the interest alleged by the plaintiff/employee has been found to be purely private in nature and not of general public concern, the general rule applied and no liability attached to the employer's action. See, e.g., Campbell v. Ford Indus., Inc., 274 Ore. 243, 546 P.2d 141 (1976) (employee/stockholder allegedly fired for pursuing stockholders' rights against employer). Thompson, 102 Wn.2d at 231-32.
In Thompson v. St. Regis Paper Co., 102 Wn.2d 219, 232, 685 P.2d 1081 (1984) the Court was careful to limit the wrongful discharge cause of action to situations where a public policy was already clearly expressed in the constitution, a statute, or a prior court decision:
"In determining whether a clear mandate of public policy is violated, courts should inquire whether the employer's conduct contravenes the letter or purpose of a constitutional, statutory, or regulatory provision or scheme.
Prior judicial decisions may also establish the relevant public policy. However, courts should proceed cautiously if called upon to declare public policy absent some prior legislative or judicial expression on the subject." Id.
As the Court noted in Thompson, "to state a cause of action, the employee must plead and prove that a stated public policy, either legislatively or judicially recognized, may have been contravened." Thompson, 102 Wn.2d at 232.
Any finding of public policy must therefore be clearly grounded in legislation or prior jurisprudence to protect employers from frivolous lawsuits, thus balancing the interests of the employer and the employee. Id.
The Court ruled that an employee seeking to enforce promises that an employer made in an employee handbook must prove:
(1) whether any statements therein amounted to promises of specific treatment in specific situations;
(2) if so, whether the employee justifiably relied on any of these promises; and, finally;
(3) whether any promises of specific treatment were breached. Id. at 233.
In Thompson the Court firmly rejected the invitation to adopt an exception to the employment at will doctrine that would read into every employment contract "an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing which limits the employer's discretion to terminate an at will employee." Thompson, 102 Wn.2d at 224, 227.
However, the Court did find that an employment relationship of indefinite duration that would generally be terminable at will "is terminable by the employer only for cause if:
(1) there is an implied agreement to that effect or;
(2) the employee gives consideration in addition to the contemplated service." Thompson, 102 Wn.2d at 223.
After reviewing the employee policy manual at issue and the entire record, the Court found no implied contract that the discharged employee was to be discharged only for cause. Thompson, 102 Wn.2d at 224.
The Court noted that the discharged employee's subjective understanding that he would be discharged only for cause was insufficient to establish an implied contract to that effect. Id.
Thus, in Washington the tort of wrongful discharge is not designed to protect an employee's purely private interest in his or her continued employment; rather, the tort operates to vindicate the public interest in prohibiting employers from acting in a manner contrary to fundamental public policy.
In sum, the Court recognized that the exception applies where application of the common law doctrine would lead "to a result clearly inconsistent with a stated public policy and the community interest it advances." Id. at 231.
The court also said that "the policy underlying the exception is that the common law doctrine cannot be used to shield an employer's action which otherwise frustrates a clear manifestation of public policy." Id.Thus, with initial adoption of the public policy exception, this court focused on the employer's action as violating clear public policy.
"The employee has the burden of proving his dismissal violates a clear mandate of public policy." Id. at 232. This mandate may be found where the "'employer's conduct contravenes the letter or purpose of a constitutional, statutory, or regulatory provision or scheme'" and where prior judicial decisions established relevant public policy. Id.
The court emphasized that this "narrow public policy exception . . . properly balances the interest of both the employer and the employee." Id.