June 9, 2015

Oral argument on employment at will

By Ethan W. Blevins Attorney

The Washington Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in two at-will employment cases in which we filed amicus briefs (here and here). As discussed in a prior post, the plaintiffs in both cases ask the Court to expand an exception to the at-will rule called the tort of wrongful discharge in violation of public policy. In Rose v. Anderson Hay and Grain Company, Charles Rose alleged that he was fired for refusing to violate federal trucking rules. He went for the legal equivalent of double-dipping by filing a state tort claim despite generous federal remedies for employees fired for upholding federal standards. In Rickman v. Premera Blue Cross, Inc., a director fired for nepotism alleged that Premera actually fired her because she made an off-hand remark that a proposed business plan might be illegal. She had never reviewed the plan herself, and the plan was never adopted, yet she seeks damages for alleged retaliation. Both our briefs argue that the Court should stick to a robust at-will employment doctrine because it respects freedom of contract and protects employers, employees, and the public.

PLF’s amicus brief received an unusual amount of attention during oral argument in Rose. Justice Charles Wiggins quoted PLF’s brief at length from the bench and questioned counsel about our arguments. In the part that he quoted, we argued that employers who fear liability over a termination hesitate to hire in the first place. This reluctance hurts the job market. As the job market shrinks, employees lose bargaining power because they won’t have as many other job prospects to use as leverage in negotiations with a current employer. The net result? Fewer empowered employees and more expensive litigation.

In the Rickman oral argument, counsel for Premera argued that the Court should not recognize retaliation claims for employees’ “gut feelings” that plans which never become reality might be illegal. Our brief echoed this concern, urging the Court to reject lawsuits “based on workplace disagreements involving no legally culpable acts.” Otherwise, employers could face an explosion of lawsuits from disgruntled employees, given how often disagreements arise at work.

At-will employment promotes freedom in employment relationships and provides security for employers and employees. We hope to see the Supreme Court of Washington deny invitations to undermine this important workplace rule in the coming months.

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