But in Connecticut, there’s another case that employers ought to be thinking about now. It dates back to the first Gulf War in
“Joe, in response to all this NFL stuff, we want you to display U.S. flags at your workstation.”
“Well, then you’re fired.”
Don’t think that can happen? Then you haven’t heard about the Cotto v. United Technologies Corp. case — a long-forgotten Connecticut Supreme Court case from 20 years ago that has particular…
Have you seen this headline? It’s from 20 years ago.
But strangely, that same headline made a reappearance this week. Don’t remember the last time it happened? Well, you should because a major Connecticut Supreme Court case arose out of it.
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.