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Circuit Court Reviews Wrongful Discharge Claim

Published by on September 15, 2010

In a case before the Warren County Circuit Court of Virginia, the plaintiff, Judith McClosky, alleged she was wrongfully discharged from her employment with the Department of Social Services and filed suit against the agency and a supervisor.  The court’s ruling addressed the individual demurrers filed by the defendants, as well as their joint motion […]

In a case before the Warren County Circuit Court of Virginia, the plaintiff, Judith McClosky, alleged she was wrongfully discharged from her employment with the Department of Social Services and filed suit against the agency and a supervisor.  The court’s ruling addressed the individual demurrers filed by the defendants, as well as their joint motion for summary judgment.  More after the break.

The court sustained the individual defendant’s demurrer as to the claim brought under the Virginia Fraud Against Taxpayers Act because it found that the defendant was not McClosky’s employer.  The court overruled the demurrer, however, to the extent that it averred that the wrongful discharge claim could not be brought against a managing employee.  The court reasoned that McClosky’s claim sounded in tort, not contract, and so McClosky could sue the managing employee responsible for her discharge.

With respect to the summary judgment motion, the court began its analysis by identifying the three public policy exceptions to Virginia’s at-will employment doctrine:  1) the violation of a policy that enables the exercise of an employee’s statutorily created right; 2) the violation of a policy explicitly expressed in a statute and the employee is a member of the class persons which the statute was designed to protect; and 3) when an employee is discharged for refusing to engage in criminal conduct.

As to the first exception, the court found that McClosky did not have a statutory duty to report alleged violations of welfare fraud – such a duty rested with the Director.  To the extent that the complaint alleged that her termination resulted from the performance of her job obligations, however, the court found that McClosky made out a claim under the first exception to the employment-at-will doctrine.  Under the second exception, the court held that McClosky had not identified a statute expressly stating a public policy designed to protect a class of persons of which McClosky was a member.  Finally, the court found that the third exception did not apply because there was no allegation that McClosky was terminated for her refusal to engage in criminal activity.

The court sustained the agency’s demurrer as to the wrongful discharge claim, but only as it pertained to the second exception to the at-will employment doctrine, which was the only exception addressed by the demurrer.

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