In a decision that will be officially released on Tuesday, the Connecticut Appellate Court has upheld the dismissal of a wrongful discharge claim against Marvelwood School, an independent school in Kent, Connecticut. In doing so, the Court turned back an attempt to limit the employment-at-will doctrine and provided employers in Connecticut with reassurance that wrongful discharge claims will be appropriately limited.
(An upfront disclosure: My firm represented the employer here and I represented the school on the successful appeal.)
The facts of the case are relatively straightforward and are summarized in the court’s decision. The plaintiff Aaron Zweig was employed by the defendant Marvelwood School as a history teacher and school’s Director of Food Studies. That role required him to establish and maintain a garden on campus and use it to teach a class on food studies.
In May, 2015, Mr. Zweig allegedly objected to the school’s suggestion that telephone poles that had been treated with creosote, a pesticide and wood preservative, be used to make raised beds in the garden because he believed that the chemical posed a health risk to himself and his students.
Following the brief dispute, Mr. Zweig was relieved of his duties relating to the garden but remained employed as a teacher at the school, entering into at-will employment agreements on two more occasions — July, 2015, and April, 2016. The school terminated his employment in September 2016.
Mr. Zweig filed a complaint in state court alleging a wrongful discharge claim, a claim which was dismissed by the Superior Court. An appeal followed claiming that the wrongful discharge claim should be allowed to proceed because of the important “public policy” of protecting children.
Connecticut has recognized the doctrine of employment at will. Under employment at will, both the employee and employer can terminate the relationship at any time for any reason or no reason.
Over 40 years ago, however, the Connecticut Supreme Court adopted an exception to that rule. In the seminal case of Sheets v. Teddy’s Frosted Foods, Inc., the Court recognized that a cause of action for wrongful discharge exists “if the former employee can prove a demonstrably improper reason for dismissal, a reason whose impropriety is derived from an important public policy.”
In later cases, the Court has noted that such an exception is a narrow one and that claims must be based on an important and clearly articulated public policy.
The Appellate Court held in this case that the employee had failed to demonstrate that his dismissal occurred for a reason that violated public policy because it did not violate any explicit statutory or constitutional provision, as there were no state or federal regulations prohibiting the use of creosote-treated wood.
Moreover, the Court held that the termination did not violate any “judicially conceived notion of public policy”, as, although the courts may have recognized a public policy of protecting children in their prior interpretations of child protection statutes, they had not articulated any judicially conceived notion of public policy relating to the protection of children.
The Court also maintained that the public policy exception to the at-will employment doctrine is narrow, requiring conduct that violates a clearly articulated public policy; a broad interpretation would impair the exercise of managerial discretion and render the at-will employment doctrine meaningless, according to the court.
On alternate grounds, the court held that even if it assumed that the defendant’s conduct violated public policy, the employee could not have prevailed on his claim because he failed to satisfy his burden of demonstrating a causal connection between his allegedly protected activity and the discharge of his employment.
Important to the Court’s analysis was the fact that the school had entered into contracts with the employee twice after the dispute, breaking any causal connection.
The Court took great pains to note that wrongful discharge claims of the type alleged in this case should not be allowed to proceed – either now or in the future.
The present case, if it were permitted to advance to trial, illustrates precisely why our Supreme Court has foreclosed litigation of at-will employment cases that fall short of alleging violations of a clearly articulated public policy. Because the plaintiff concedes, as he must, the absence of state or federal statutes or regulations prohibiting the use of creosote in telephone poles used in garden beds, the plaintiff’s proffer of the opinions of experts and statements in agency brochures effectively seeks to have the court litigate the merits of his public policy claim.
These sources, however, are opinions subject to dispute, such that the defendant would be entitled to challenge with its own experts and evidence the degree to which creosote is unsafe and whether it was reasonable for the defendant to be dismissive of the plaintiff’s concerns because it relied on Winter’s belief that, if dry and/or lined, creosote telephone poles did not pose a risk to students.
Permitting a plaintiff to litigate conduct that is not clearly proscribed by statute would eviscerate the underlying premise of the at-will employment doctrine
For employers, the case is another reminder of the importance of documenting your termination decisions and also seeking legal counsel before a termination decision is made. Here, the employer was able to articulate is business decision and ultimately, the Appellate Court upheld the decision.
Moreover, the case highlights the importance of outlining the employment at will relationship with employees in both offer letters and employee handbooks. For independent schools, the yearly appointment letters for teachers should have this language in there if that is important for the schools.