While maybe not quite as exciting as last night’s fantastic win by the Detroit Tigers, Michigan employers got a great win this week from the Michigan Court of Appeals involving a claim for wrongful termination in violation of a public policy.
Specifically, in Irwin v Ciena Health Care Management, Inc. (PDF), a nurse was employed in an at-will position. After she was terminated, she filed suit urging the Court to recognize a cause of action for the wrongful termination of a health care professional for refusing to provide care that allegedly violated the standard of care applicable to medical professionals.
The Michigan Supreme Court has recognized a cause of action for wrongful termination in violation of public policy when the plaintiff is terminated “for failure or refusal to violate the law in the course of employment.” Such claims are recognized even where the employment was relationship is “at-will.” But as explained below, the Court declined to expand the public policy exception.
Michigan’s Public Policy Exception to At-Will Employment
The Michigan Supreme Court has recognized only three situations when public policy will preclude an employer from terminating an at-will employee:
- The employee is discharged in violation of an explicit legislative statement prohibiting discharge of employees who act in accordance with a statutory right or duty;
- The employee is discharged for the failure or refusal to violate the law in the course of employment, which may extend to principles derived from authoritative sources other than statutes, such as principles promulgated in constitutional provisions, common law, and regulations; and
- The employee is discharged for exercising a right conferred by a well-established legislative enactment.
Returning to the plaintiff’s claim for wrongful termination in violation of public policy, the Court reasoned that the standard of care applicable to medical malpractice claims is not based on an objective legal source. Instead, it must be established through expert testimony on a case-by-case basis. And then, the fact-finder can choose to accept or reject that testimony. Accordingly, in contrast to the three public policy examples above, the determination of the standard of care owed to a patient is a fact-driven, subjective inquiry.
Further, the Court also expressed its reluctance to make a “significant departure” from Michigan employment law in recognizing what it considered a new cause of action. Accordingly, it noted that any new public policy basis for a wrongful termination claim should come from the Michigan Legislature or Supreme Court.
The Take-Away for Employers
First, this decision is a good reminder that even when your company has an at-will employment relationship, there are important limitations for when an employee can be terminated. And the above case is a fine example of a smart employment attorney coming up with a creative strategy to argue around the at-will employment relationship. While this legal strategy ultimately failed, it still exposed the employer to liability and the expense of defending the wrongful termination lawsuit.
Second and building on the preceding point, any time your company is terminating an employee it is a good idea to first consult with an employment attorney or, at least, an exhaustive employment termination checklist. In doing so your company or HR professional will be in a better position to identify red-flags in otherwise “low risk” terminations and separate out “high-risk” terminations that may require additional attention in order to eliminate or reduce the chance of an employment lawsuit later being filed.
For more information about Michigan employment law or wrongful termination claims, contact Jason Shinn. Since 2001, he has worked with employers and employees to address federal and Michigan employment law compliance and, if necessary, litigated such matters in state and federal courts. He also comments on employment and HR related issues on Twitter as well as moderating the Michigan HR Toolbox, a LinkedIn group for HR professionals.