A recent article by the Connecticut Law Tribune reported on the trial of two bar workers who claimed that they were terminated in retaliation for reporting a supervisor’s alleged sexual harassment of a waitress. According to court records In the trial of Daniel Van Kruiningen and Kimberly Chatterton v. Plan B, LLC d/b/a Mohegan After Dark, which took place in federal court in May 2007 (the article fails to mention the date), the jury found for the employer on all counts, including a common law claim for wrongful discharge.
The Tribune article sums up the salacious allegations found in the Complaint:
Mystic resident Daniel Van Kruiningen and Kimberly Chatterton of Norwich were assistant manager and club manager of Ultra 88, an upscale lounge at the Mohegan Sun casino on Dec. 7, 2003. After hours, Chatterton was checking on other bars owned by her employer…
Afterwards, Van Kruiningen obtained copies of the video surveillance camera’s recordings at Lucky’s Lounge, which showed that a young waitress had returned to Lucky’s after Chatterton left. Indistinctly, the videos appeared to show that [the supervisor] had sex with her on or near the bar.
According to the Complaint in the matter, they alleged that the video showed the supervisor causing the waitress to become intoxicated through serving of alcohol. Chatterton and Van Kruiningen alleged that they complained about serving alcohol to this underage waitress and about the incident, and alleged that they were fired a month after this incident in retaliation.
From an employment law perspective, the most interesting aspect of the case is the wrongful-discharge claim. The real action on this count took place behind the scenes before the trial, however. In ruling on a motion for judgment, the District Court rejected the employer’s claim that reporting a supervisor’s serving of alcohol to minors was not an "important public policy" giving rise to an exception to the employment-at-will doctrine. The court found that a wrongful discharge claim could arise from a state statute that forbids the serving of alcohol to minors.
Footnote 6 of the opinion contains an interesting observation by the court about whether its ruling will open the floodgates in other matters.
Defendant maintains that “[u]nder plaintiffs’ theory, every employee who observes – but does not participate in – a supervisor’s single violation of an important public policy, and who reports such violation to her employer, is immune from termination on an at-will basis.” …This is an overstatement because it overlooks the reality that such plaintiff must prove that he or she was terminated in retaliation for his or her reports of such unlawful conduct; while the amount of allegedly unlawful conduct, and/or the number of times plaintiffs voiced complaints, may be relevant to the jury’s causation determination, these considerations do not render plaintiffs’ public policy claim as alleged legally insufficient.
What does this mean for employers in the state? It’s another case that has, depending on your perspective, eroded the at-will employment doctrine in Connecticut further, or expanded wrongful discharge claims to protect employees who report violations of state law. Although the employer ultimately prevailed at trial, the cost of the litigation as well as the uncertainty regarding the outcome must have weighed on the employer.
For employers in the food-services industry, the decision takes on some added significance. Because complaints regarding other employee’s violations of liquor laws could give rise to a wrongful discharge claim under this decision, employers should consider investigating such complaints and ensuring that its supervisors do not retaliate against employees who make such complaints. Advice of legal counsel to discuss the particular circumstances should also be considered.