Court of Appeals Affirms Judgment as a Matter of Law for Employer in Wrongful Discharge Action

On September 5, 2013, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals decided Davis v. Community Alternatives of Washington, D.C., Inc., No. 11-CV-1497, slip op. (D.C. Sept. 5, 2013), in which it considered the viability of a tort claim for wrongful discharge against public policy. Id. at 1-2. The claim was brought by, inter alia, two former employees of the defendant, “which operates group homes that house adults with intellectual disabilities.” Id. The plaintiffs alleged that they were discharged “because of their complaints about client treatment and staff working conditions.” Id. at 2. “[T]he case proceeded to trial, and at the close of [the plaintiffs’] case-in-chief, the trial court granted . . . judgment as a matter of law” for the defendant. Id. at 2-3. The plaintiffs appealed. Id. at 3.

The main issue on appeal was whether the trial court erred in granting judgment as a matter of law for the defendant. Id. at 3. The Court of Appeals began its analysis of that issue by briefly describing the tort of wrongful discharge against public policy. Id. at 3-6. It stated that the tort “creates a ‘very narrow’ exception to the general rule that at-will employees may be discharged at any time for any reason.” Id. at 3-4 (footnote omitted; quoting Carl v. Children’s Hosp., 702 A.2d 159, 159-60 (D.C. 1997) (en banc)). It further stated that, to make out a claim for wrongful discharge, a plaintiff must “identify either a public policy that [the Court of Appeals] has previously recognized or ‘make a clear showing, based on some identifiable policy that has been officially declared in a statute or municipal regulation, or in the Constitution, that a new exception [to the at-will doctrine] is needed.'” Id. at 4 (internal quotation marks omitted; second alteration in original; quoting Fingerhut v. Children’s Natl’l Med. Ctr., 738 A.2d 799, 803-04 (D.C. 1999)). A plaintiff must also show “‘a close fit between [that] policy. . . and the conduct at issue in the allegedly wrongful termination.'” Id. (alterations in original; quoting Fingerhut, 738 A.2d at 803 n.7). Additionally, the “predominant cause” of the termination must be a protected activity; termination for “serious misbehavior on the job” is not actionable. Id. at 5-6 (citing Wallace v. Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, 715 A.2d 873, 886 (D.C. 1998)).

Applying the foregoing law to the facts of this case, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s award of judgment as a matter of law for the defendant. The Court of Appeals explained that judgment as a matter of law was properly awarded to the defendant because, inter alia, “the evidence at trial established that [the plaintiffs] were terminated for serious, job-related misbehavior: [one] for falsifying her time and getting paid for hours she had not worked, and [the other] for fighting with her coworkers.” Id. at 8. Furthermore, the plaintiffs “developed no evidence at trial” — either direct or circumstantial — to show that their allegedly protected conduct (i.e., making complaints about client treatment and staff working conditions) “was in any way a factor in [the defendant’s] decisions to fire them.” Id. at 8 & n.7.