March 14, 2012
Wrongful Discharge

by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer

In 2001, Randall J. Dohme began working for a company called Eurand America, Inc. He was with the company until his termination, in March 2003. What happened in between became the basis for a wrongful discharge case that ended up coming before us – the Supreme Court of Ohio.

Randall’s first position with the company was as engineering supervisor, where he was responsible for supervising the performance of engineering technicians and team leaders. Randall was later named the facilities administrator.  In that role his job responsibilities included maintaining the plant fire-protection system. Randall claimed that although his title never changed, his duties with Eurand America during the last three months of his employment consisted of merely tracking the tools and parts used by the maintenance department.

Randall claimed that Eurand America fired him because he had expressed concerns about the safety of the workplace to outside parties. One incident happened in 2001 when Randall discussed with his neighbor – a captain with the local fire department – the design of a pump, which Randall believed had started a fire at the plant.

Then, in 2003, Randall communicated his workplace-safety concerns to an insurance adjuster who conducted an on-site evaluation of Eurand America’s facility to assess the building and its operations. Randall claims that he was terminated because of this “perceived role in an on-site insurance adjuster’s discovery of certain violations relative to Eurand America’s fire alarm system, which…jeopardized workplace safety and placed employees in an unreasonable and dangerous setting.”

Eurand America, on the other hand, claimed that it terminated Randall for insubordination. The company stated that prior to the insurance adjuster’s visit, it sent an interoffice e-mail to all its employees that explained the facility would be inspected by the adjuster and that only certain employees of Eurand America – who were identified in that e-mail – were to have contact with the adjuster. Randall was not one of those employees.

Randall spoke with the adjuster nevertheless. He told the adjuster that he couldn’t locate an internal monthly report detailing overdue fire-alarm inspections. Randall stated to the adjuster that “he might want to find out what happened with that fire inspection report that was removed from the computer system.”

Randall believed that someone at Eurand America purposefully made the fire inspection report disappear and someone was “trying to make it look like” Randall was not doing his job, even though he had been told to concentrate on the location and labeling of spare parts.

After he was fired, Randall filed a claim in court of wrongful discharge in violation of public policy. What did he mean by this?

In Ohio, the common-law doctrine of employment at will governs employment relationships. If an employee is discharged in contravention of a clear public policy articulated by the Ohio or United States Constitution, federal or state laws, administrative rules and regulations, or common law, then a cause of action for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy may exist.

In response to Randall’s claim in court, Eurand America filed a motion for summary judgment – meaning the company asked the trial court to settle the issue without trial. The trial court granted summary judgment to Eurand America.  The trial court based its decision on Randall’s failure to articulate a specific clear public policy that was jeopardized by his termination.

When the court of appeals reviewed the case, it reversed the trial court. The court of appeals concluded that because there was a clear public policy generally favoring fire safety in the workplace, retaliation against employees who raise concerns over fire safety violates public policy.

The court of appeals found Randall’s motive for reporting the safety concerns to be irrelevant. It also concluded that the public policy favoring workplace fire safety was jeopardized by Randall’s discharge. After that, the case came before us for a final review.

There are several elements that must be met for a successful claim of wrongful discharge in violation of public policy.  The one that we’ll focus on – the “clarity clause” – states that in an action claiming wrongful discharge, the terminated employee must assert and prove a clear public policy deriving from the state or federal constitutions, a law or administrative regulation, or the common law.

In this case, we concluded, as did the trial court, that Randall failed to meet his required burden to articulate, by citation to its source, a specific public policy that Eurand America violated when it discharged him. Randall’s complaint simply alleged that Eurand America’s actions “jeopardized workplace safety.”

Randall had to show that the issue to be tried was genuine and he could not rely solely upon the pleadings or upon unsupported allegations. But Randall only generally mentioned or identified any legal basis for a statewide policy for workplace health and safety. He did not cite any specific statement of law in support of his claim of public policy that was drawn from the federal or state constitution, federal or state laws, administrative rules and regulations, or common law.

Thus, Randall failed to establish the existence of a clear public policy applicable to him in this matter.

Based on these reasons, we concluded that to satisfy the clarity element of a claim of wrongful discharge in violation of public policy, a terminated employee must articulate a clear public policy by citation to specific provisions in the federal or state constitution, federal or state laws, administrative rules and regulations, or common law. A general reference to workplace safety is insufficient to meet the clarity requirement.

Randall did not assert or prove – for the purposes of satisfying the clarity element – the existence of a clear Ohio public policy supported by specific citations. Because his claim of wrongful discharge in violation of public policy fails for lack of proof of a specific clear public policy, Eurand America is entitled to summary judgment in its favor.

Thus, because Randall failed to establish the clarity element of his claim, we reversed the judgment of the court of appeals by a seven-to-zero vote.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The case referred to is Dohme v. Eurand Am., Inc., 130 Ohio St.3d 168, 2011-Ohio-4609. Case No. 2010-1621. Decided September 15, 2011. Majority opinion written by Justice Robert R. Cupp.