An employee who contended that he was fired after complaining about a physically threatening co-worker cannot bring a wrongful discharge claim, in a decision released by the Connecticut District Court.  The case, Ferrer v. T.L. Cannon Management Corp. (download here), does suggest, however, a way for employees to bring such claims in the future — with some artful language in the complaint. 

Readers of this blog will be aware  that Connecticut is an at-will employment state, absent some contractual promises or some other exception that may apply. In general terms, that means is that an employee can quit any time for any reason and that an employer can fire the employee at any time for any reason (so long as it’s not an illegal one such as race, gender, etc.) 

Two Connecticut Supreme Court cases are required reading for this concept: Sheets v. Teddy’s Frosted Food, Inc. 179 Conn. 471, 427 A.2d 385 (1980), and Parsons v. United Technologies Corp. 243. Conn. 66, 89, 700 A.2d 655 (1997).  [Disclosure: I worked on the Parsons matter.] 

Those cases created a notable exception to the at will standard:

  • In Sheets, the Court held that an at-will employee may sue for wrongful discharge if he is fired for complaining about, or refusing to participate in, his employer’s violation of public policy.
  • In Parsons, the Court ruled that the public policy embodied in the state statute requiring employers “to exercise reasonable care to provide for [their] servants a reasonably safe place in which to work,” Conn. Gen. Stat. § 31- 49, provides grounds for a wrongful discharge claim when an atwill employee is fired for refusing to work in conditions posing
    an “objectively substantial risk of death, disease or serious bodily injury.”

So, in the Ferrer case, the District Court was asked to extend the Parsons exception to a situation where the employee was allegedly discharged after informing his manager that a co-worker threw a punch at him and missed. The complaint also alleged that the co-worker assaulted another employee about a year earlier.

The District Court here first found that there might be situations were working with an unstable co-worker could give rise to a wrongful discharge claim:

The danger posed to an employee by an unstable co-worker may be sufficiently serious in exceptional cases to satisfy the objective standard established in Parsons. Accordingly, it is reasonable to assume that the Connecticut Supreme Court would extend the cause of action recognized in Parsons to cases in which an employee is fired after complaining about having to work with such a co-worker.

But the court concludes that the allegations in the complaint here were not enough to raise a claim.

What would be enough? The court provides this guidance: "His claim would be adequately pleaded if he alleged that the co-worker had a known propensity for violence and specifically threatened him with serious bodily harm."

So, the court — while denying this specific claim — has created a possible roadmap for future claims as well.

Why is this important for employers?

Employers should continue to take all threats of violence at the workplace seriously by investigating them and taking action if necessary.  Any situations involving employees with a "known propensity for violence" should be reviewed carefully. And if an employer fires an employee who complains about threats of violence in the workplace, this case suggests a path that the employee can take to bring a lawsuit against the company.  As with all employment decisions, thorough and accurate documentation can be helpful as well.