Case Update: Wrongful Discharge in Violation of Public Policy

On September 25, 2014, the Court of Appeals, Division III, issued an opinion in Charles Rose v. Anderson Hay and Grain Company, Case No. 30545-7-III. Mr. Rose sued his former employer, Anderson Hay for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy after a similar suit was dismissed in federal court because he had failed to timely exhaust his federal administrative remedies. Mr. Rose alleged that Anderson Hay fired him for his refusal to complete his shift, which he claimed would have forced him to exceed the maximum number of hours under federal regulations and required him to violate federal regulations by falsifying his time sheets. In federal court, he argued that his termination violated the Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act (CMVSA). He then filed with Washington state court, alleging wrongful termination in violation of public policy, in violation of 49 U.S.C. § 31105.

Washington state court dismissed his action, stating that his federal administrative remedies would have been adequate to vindicate the public policy—had he filed his complaint in a timely manner. Mr. Rose appealed and the Court of Appeals affirmed. The Washington Supreme Court remanded the matter back for reconsideration in light of a recent 2013 opinion (Piel v. City of Federal Way, 117 Wn.2d 604). In Rose, Division III of the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court again.

For a common law claim of wrongful discharge in violation of public policy, a plaintiff must prove three elements: a clear public policy (clarity), discouraging the conduct in which the employee engaged would jeopardize the public policy (jeopardy), and the policy-linked conduct caused the dismissal (causation). The issue in this case was the jeopardy element, and the plaintiff must show that other means of promoting the public policy are inadequate.

The CMVSA protects the public interest of highway safety and prohibits an employer from discharging an employee who refuses to operate a vehicle in violation of federal standards or regulations related to commercial vehicle safety. If an employer violates the statute, the Secretary of Labor can take affirmative action. There is nothing in the CMVSA that preempts or diminishes any other safeguards against discrimination, demotion, discharge, etc., provided by federal or state law. It also provides for punitive damages. The court found that the remedies available under the CMVSA more than adequately protect the public interest in commercial motor vehicle safety, and thus, found that there was no jeopardy element.

One of the lessons to be learned here is to make sure all claims are filed on time. Mr. Rose lost his public policy claim in federal court because he did not exhaust his federal administrative remedies in the proper time. He then lost his claim in state court because the federal statute (CMVSA) provided proper safeguards and remedies, and as such, he was unable to meet the jeopardy element in the state claim.

Feel free to contact Attorney Ada K. Wong at info@akwlawpllc.com or (425) 954-3512 if you have any questions about wrongful termination, public policy claims, or what rights you may have against your current or former employer.

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