United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri Dismisses Claim Brought Pursuant to the Public Policy Exception to the At-Will Employment Doctrine

In Abts v. Mercy Health, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri dismissed the plaintiff’s common law claim for wrongful termination in violation of public policy. Case No. 4:19-cv-02768, 2020 WL 2304813, at *5 (E.D. Mo. May 8, 2020). Abts is the most recent example of the Eastern District of Missouri dismissing such a claim based on the 2017 changes to Missouri law enacted by the Missouri legislature.

Factual Background

The plaintiff was an employee of Mercy Hospital Jefferson from 2004 until his termination on November 2, 2017. Abts, 2020 WL 2308413, at *1. The plaintiff worked as a nurse, a patient advocate, and finally as the manager of the Progressive Care Unit (“PCU”) at Mercy Health. Id. In spring 2016, the plaintiff took an eight-week leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) to care for his newborn child. Id. In March 2017, the plaintiff learned that his wife was once again pregnant and informed his supervisor of his intention to once again exercise his FMLA rights to take an eight-week leave. Id. On September 26, 2017, the plaintiff submitted his official FMLA Leave of Absence Request Form. Id. at *2. On October 26, 2017, Mercy sent the plaintiff a notice that his leave would not be designated as FMLA leave because he did not submit complete and sufficient documents within the established timeframe. Id. On November 2, 2017, Mercy terminated the plaintiff’s employment and identified four reasons for the termination including, inter alia, that plaintiff did not follow the leave process and was on an unapproved leave for 30 days. Id.

On October 11, 2019, the plaintiff filed a three-Count Complaint alleging FMLA interference, FMLA retaliation, and a common law wrongful discharge claim in which plaintiff asserts Mercy terminated him in violation of public policy. Abts, 2020 WL 2308413, at *2.

Analysis

After stating the general rule in Missouri regarding employment relationships (i.e., that an at-will employee may be terminated for any reason or no reason), the Court reviewed recent changes to Missouri law enacted in 2017. Abts, 2020 WL 2308413, at *5. In 2017, the Missouri legislature amended various subsections of the statute related to unlawful employment practices. Id. For instance, Section 214.070.2, RSMo., states “[t]his chapter, in addition to chapter 285 and chapter 287, shall provide the exclusive remedy for any and all claims for injury or damages arising out of [the] employment relationship.” Id. Further, Section 285.573.3, RSMo., states “[t]his section is intended to codify the existing common law exception to the at-will doctrine and to limit their future expansion by the courts. This section, in addition to chapter 213 and chapter 287, shall provide the exclusive remedy for any and all claims of unlawful [employment] practices.” Id.

The Court dismissed the plaintiff’s common law wrongful termination claim because the claim fell outside the exclusive statutory remedies delineated in chapters 213 and 287 of the Missouri Revised Statutes. Abts, 2020 WL 2308413, at *5. In other words, since the Missouri legislature intended the revised legislation to supplant common law wrongful discharge actions, the claim was explicitly abrogated by statute and barred by Missouri law. Id.

The takeaway from this case is that courts will dismiss common law wrongful discharge actions due to the recent 2017 changes to the Missouri Revised Statutes; instead, such claims must be brought pursuant to a statute, such as Missouri’s Whistleblower Protection Act. This case is the third recent example of courts in the Eastern and Western Districts of Missouri dismissing such claims. See also Mucci v. St. Francois Cty. Ambulance Dist., 2019 WL 6170721, at *5 (E.D. Mo. Nov. 20, 2019); Huskey v. Petsmart, Inc., 2019 WL 122873, at *2 (W.D. Mo. Jan. 7, 2019) (stating the statute “specifies that it and two other enumerated statutes ‘shall provide the exclusive remedy for any and all claims for injury or damages arising out of an employment relationship.’ In other words, in Missouri, damages arising from the employment relationship cannot be redressed except through the specified statutes”). Attorneys should expect to see this trend continue if they continue to file common law wrongful discharge actions in Missouri state and federal courts.

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