State Specific Developments: November 2013
Iowa: A recent Iowa Supreme Court decision, Dorshkind v. Oak Park Place of Dubuque II, L.L.C., addressed the public policy exception to at-will employment. The court upheld a jury verdict for the plaintiff in a wrongful termination claim where the employee’s discharge was the result of an internal complaint she made regarding state-mandated forged training documents maintained by the employer. Therefore, an employee may be protected by the public policy exception even when violations of the law are only reported internally. In a concurrence, Chief Justice Cady clarified that the decision did not extend the public policy exception to complaints regarding an employer’s legitimate business practices.
Kansas: Last month in Yousif v. Landers McClarty Olathe KS, LLC, the District of Kansas held that a plaintiff employee could not bring a claim of “perceived” discrimination under Title VII against his employer. The court stated that “case law clearly demonstrates that plaintiff’s ‘perceived’ discrimination claims are not cognizable under Title VII…. Title VII protects only members of a protected class.” The plaintiff asserted that his employer called him an “Iranian terrorist” and a “Middle Eastern hitman,” but failed to identify in his EEOC Charge and his Complaint whether he actually was Middle-Eastern. The court noted that “Title VII contains no language regarding the protection of those who are perceived to be members of a protected class.”
Minnesota: The District of Minnesota recently held that where the plaintiff was the only overnight nurse on duty with her small employer, extending her leave past twelve-weeks, was not a reasonable accommodation. The court held that given the employer’s “relatively small staff size, its concerns over the quality of resident care and the negative effects on its budget and staff, no reasonable jury could decline to find that the extended leave was an undue hardship” on this employer.
Missouri: A federal district court in the Eastern District of Missouri held that an employee may proceed with his disability discrimination claim under the Missouri Human Rights Act alleging he was demoted and subsequently laid off after in-patient treatment for prescription drug addiction. The employer argued that the lawsuit should be dismissed because the adverse action was based upon complaints by clients of the employer who were unaware of the employee’s substance abuse treatment. The court held that there was sufficient evidence to establish that the employee’s disability was a contributing factor to his demotion and layoff based upon comments made by the employee’s manager. The manager had commented that the employee’s time in “rehab” may have affected his job security, and that the employee could not be trusted to investigate an incident due to his drug problem. In addition, a co-worker commented that the employee would never work for the employer again because of his drug problem.
Montana: Last month, the Montana federal court granted summary judgment to an employer holding that it had good cause to terminate an assistant manager. The assistant manager had led a team of subordinate employees on an out-of-town inventory trip. While on that trip after completing inventory one day, the assistant manager purchased alcohol which she distributed to the subordinates at the hotel. The assistant manager argued that the employer did not have good cause to terminate for her off duty conduct and also did not have a basis within the personnel manual to do so. The court disagreed, holding that the employer had greater latitude to discharge members of management and that its policy manual precluded actions which were contrary to the interests of the employer, which the court reasoned extended to off duty conduct. The court also noted that the off duty conduct occurred in conjunction with the inventory survey, and the assistant manager provided alcohol to a nineteen-year-old employee, which was illegal.
Montana: The Montana federal court recently held the federal enclave doctrine pre-empted a Wrongful Discharge from Employment Act (“WDEA”) case. A former employee of a concessions contractor in Yellowstone National Park sued his employer alleging a violation of the WDEA. The employer removed the case to federal court, citing a complete pre-emption under the federal enclave doctrine and further argued that federal law pre-empted all claims under the WDEA. The court agreed that the federal enclave doctrine completely pre-empted the claim so that the federal court had jurisdiction over the case and also held that it precluded any claim under the WDEA. Employers who are contractors within federal installations, including parks, may have an important defense to WDEA claims.
North Dakota: In Schmitt v. MeritCare Health System, 834 N.W.2d 627 (N.D. 2013), North Dakota’s Supreme Court affirmed summary judgment for the defendant, a former employer, in a defamation lawsuit arising from the defendant’s answers to a prospective employer’s credentialing questionnaire. In the questionnaire, the defendant (1) stated it would recommend hiring the plaintiff doctor “with reservation,” and (2) acknowledged the plaintiff-doctor was previously “presented with an action plan based on episodes of insensitive comments and irritability with others” while employed with the defendant. The plaintiff-doctor admitted the defendant’s statements were “technically true,” but contended they were nonetheless libelous because they used “innuendo, insinuation, or sarcasm to convey an untrue and defamatory meaning,” as prohibited by North Dakota law. The court disagreed, holding that the defendant’s answers were “not reasonably and fairly susceptible of a defamatory meaning” given their concise, fact-based nature. As a result, the court did not need to decide whether North Dakota’s qualified immunity statute or the plaintiff’s signed liability waiver for his former employer’s responses to the questionnaire provided independent grounds for denying the plaintiff’s claims.
South Dakota: South Dakota is starting a new centralized website that will enable easy access to learn about and comment upon all rules proposed by the state’s agencies. The website will be helpful to employers to learn about and comment on the rules of agencies with which they may frequently interact, such as the Department of Labor and Regulation. The new website is at https://rules.sd.gov.