Wrongful Termination of Employment


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Wrongful Termination of Employment

In Utah, like many other states, a non-governmental employer is given very broad discretion to manage its workforce.  Consequently, an employer or employee may terminate an employment relationship for any reason, or no reason, except where the reason is prohibited by law.  In harmony with this doctrine, the legislature has expressly prohibited several bases for termination, such as termination based on race, gender, or disability. 

However, sometimes courts will determine that an employee's termination violates a clear and substantial public policy, even though no statute exists that expressly forbids that specific termination circumstance.  For example, courts will not allow an employee to be terminated for refusing to commit an illegal act or reporting criminal activity of the employer. 

In Ray v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 2015 UT 83, 359 P.3d 614, the Utah Supreme Court determined whether an employer may terminate an employee for engaging in self-defense.  In Ray, several employees of Wal–Mart were fired for violating company policy when they physically engaged with shoplifting customers.  At the time, Wal-Mart’s policy required all employees to disengage from any violent confrontation, withdraw to a safe position, and contact law enforcement. 

In the first instance, two Wal-Mart employees confronted a shoplifter and grabbed her arms as she tried to run away.  During the struggle, the shoplifter pulled out a small pocketknife and shouted that she was going to stab the employees if they did not release her.  The employees maintained their hold as a customer helped pry the knife out of the shoplifter's hand.  After the incident, Wal-Mart fired both employees.

In the second instance, several employees approached a customer who was attempting to steal a laptop by concealing it in his pants and escorted him to the store's asset protection office.  Once in the office, the shoplifter grabbed a gun from his clothing, and the employees removed the gun from the shoplifter’s hands and forced him to the ground.  As with the first incident, Wal-Mart fired the employees afterwards.

In Ray, the Utah Supreme Court began by explaining that at-will employment relationships may be terminated by the employer or an employee for any reason other than those prohibited by law, and an employer's decision is presumed valid unless an employee can show, among other things, that the termination constitutes a violation of a clear and substantial public policy.  The Court then analyzed whether Utah law reflects a policy favoring the right of self-defense with sufficient magnitude to qualify as an exception to at-will employment. 

Through its analysis, the court found that “(1) Utah law strongly supports the right of self-defense while recognizing circumstances in which a person may have a duty to withdraw; (2) a policy favoring the right of self-defense is also of broad public importance because it protects human life while deterring crime; and (3) despite the strong interests employers have in maintaining a safe workplace through de-escalation policies, the right of individuals to defend themselves against imminent bodily injury or death is simply more compelling where the employee cannot safely withdraw.”

Consequently, the court held that an at-will employee who is fired for exercising self-defense may maintain a wrongful termination action, but only if the employee faced an imminent threat of serious bodily harm in circumstances where he or she was unable to withdraw.  The Court in Ray did not ultimately apply this standard to the facts of that case, instead, the lower court was tasked with determining whether the Wal-Mart employees faced an imminent threat of serious bodily harm in circumstances where they were unable to withdraw. 

If you or someone you know is experiencing  employment related issues, we suggest that you contact Kesler & Rust to fully understand the relevant rights and obligations under Utah law.