Adams v. George W. Cochran & Co., Inc.

Decision Date17 September 1991
Docket NumberNo. 89-374.,89-374.
Citation597 A.2d 28
CourtD.C. Court of Appeals
PartiesRobert L. ADAMS, Appellant, v. GEORGE W. COCHRAN & COMPANY, INC., Appellee.

H. Vincent McKnight, Washington, D.C., for appellant.

Roy L. Kaufmann, with whom Seth B. Popkin, Washington, D.C., was on the brief, for appellee.

Before TERRY and FARRELL, Associate Judges, and NEWMAN, Senior Judge.*

TERRY, Associate Judge:

Appellant Adams sued George W. Cochran & Company ("Cochran"), his former employer, for wrongful discharge after Cochran had fired him for refusing to drive a truck that lacked a required inspection sticker. Adams sought lost wages and damages for emotional distress. When Cochran moved for summary judgment, the court granted the motion in part, ruling, without further explanation, that Adams could not recover any damages for emotional distress. Adams then filed two successive motions for leave to amend his complaint in order to add a claim for punitive damages. Both motions were denied. The case later went to trial, and the jury returned a verdict in favor of Adams, awarding him $7094.00 in lost wages. On this appeal Adams challenges the three pre-trial orders: the one granting Cochran summary judgment on the issue of liability for emotional distress and the two denying Adams leave to amend his complaint. We affirm the latter two orders, but we conclude that the court erred in granting Cochran summary judgment on the issue of emotional damages. We therefore reverse and remand for a new trial on that issue.


Cochran fired Adams from his job as a delivery truck driver. Adams thereafter filed this action, alleging that Cochran had wrongfully discharged him after he had refused to drive a truck that did not have an inspection sticker on its windshield. Adams alleged that Cochran's actions violated public policy in that Cochran had fired him for his refusal to violate District of Columbia law.1 He sought damages for lost wages and for emotional distress.

Cochran answered the complaint and then moved for summary judgment on the ground that Adams was an at-will employee and therefore not entitled to damages, either for wrongful discharge or for emotional distress. Cochran argued that Adams had not alleged any breach of an employment contract and that District of Columbia law does not recognize the tort of wrongful discharge of an at-will employee. It also contended that Adams was not entitled to damages for emotional distress, either as an element of his claim for wrongful discharge or as a separate cause of action. The court denied Cochran's motion for summary judgment on the claim of wrongful discharge,2 but granted it with respect to Adams' request for damages for emotional distress. The court's order, however, did not specify whether Adams was barred from recovering such damages for emotional distress as an element of wrongful discharge or as a separate cause of action, or both.

Adams then filed a motion, pursuant to Super.Ct.Civ.R. 15, for leave to amend his complaint by adding a claim for punitive damages. That motion was denied on the ground that the proposed amendment sought damages for emotional distress, which was precluded by the court's earlier order. A second motion to amend the complaint for the same purpose was denied without opinion.

At trial Cochran defended against Adams' claim by introducing evidence that Adams was fired because he had become a difficult employee and had refused to take delivery runs on prior occasions without good reason. The case went to the jury, however, on the theory that Adams had been discharged solely for his refusal to violate District of Columbia law by driving a truck that lacked an inspection sticker. The court also instructed the jury that it could not award any more than Adams' lost wages, which the evidence showed was $7094.00. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Adams in that amount.

A. The law in the District of Columbia

It has long been settled in the District of Columbia that an employer may discharge an at-will employee at any time and for any reason, or for no reason at all. Wemhoff v. Investors Management Corp., 528 A.2d 1205, 1208 n. 3 (D.C.1987); Taylor v. Greenway Restaurant, Inc., 173 A.2d 211 (D.C.1961); Pfeffer v. Ernst, 82 A.2d 763, 764 (D.C.1951) (citing cases). It is undisputed that Adams' employment with Cochran was at-will. Adams asks us to recognize a public policy exception to this at-will doctrine and to hold, for the first time, that an employer engages in tortious conduct when it fires an at-will employee for that employee's refusal to break the law at the employer's direction.

"Public policy" exceptions to the general rule have been urged upon this court before, but thus far we have not recognized any such exceptions. See Ivy v. Army Times Publishing Co., 428 A.2d 831 (D.C.1981). As published, Ivy was not a decision on the merits but merely an order denying a petition for rehearing en banc in a case which had been decided by an unpublished Memorandum Opinion and Judgment. Four judges dissented from the denial of rehearing en banc, maintaining that this court should address the legality of terminating an at-will employee in violation of a "statutorily declared public policy."3 Id. at 833 (Ferren, J., dissenting).4

More recently we revisited the issue in Sorrells v. Garfinckel's, Brooks Brothers, Miller & Rhoads, Inc., 565 A.2d 285 (D.C.1989). The plaintiff in that case was an at-will employee who, after being fired, sued her former employer for wrongful discharge, alleging that her discharge had been contrary to District of Columbia public policy. The trial court granted the employer summary judgment on the issue of wrongful discharge. The plaintiff appealed to this court, arguing inter alia that her discharge violated the policy behind the District of Columbia Human Rights Act, D.C.Code §§ 1-2511 et seq. (1987 & 1990 Supp.). She did not allege an actual violation of the Act, however, but instead urged us "to `broaden' the policies expressed in the Human Rights Act and to fill a perceived `gap' in the Act." 565 A.2d at 289. This court, ruling that "no `statutorily declared public policy' supports appellant's claim of wrongful discharge in this case," declined to hold that the plaintiff's discharge was in violation of public policy. Id. (citation omitted). In so ruling, we were careful to point out that we have never recognized a public policy exception to the at-will employment doctrine. Id.

Cochran argues that the public policy issue raised by Adams is not properly before this court and is, in any event, irrelevant. It maintains that the sole issue on appeal is the correctness of the award of damages, and that in order to resolve that issue, we need not decide whether to recognize an exception to the rule that a fired at-will employee may not sue his or her employer for wrongful discharge. Cochran is mistaken. Adams is seeking, inter alia, a reversal of the trial court's ruling that he was not entitled to recover damages for emotional distress, but he concedes that he suffered no physical injury as a result of his discharge. Nevertheless, District of Columbia law allows "a plaintiff to recover damages for mental suffering unaccompanied by physical injury as part of his recovery for an intentional tort." Parker v. Stein, 557 A.2d 1319, 1322 (D.C.1989) (citations omitted). A reversal of the trial court's order denying Adams recovery for emotional distress would thus be an implied holding that wrongful discharge for refusing to violate the law is an intentional tort, i.e., a recognition that there is a public policy exception to the well-established at-will doctrine. We must therefore address the issue directly, for we cannot decide whether Adams is entitled to damages for emotional distress without first deciding whether he has a cause of action and, if so, whether that cause of action sounds in tort or in contract.

B. The law in other jurisdictions

The leading case on the public policy exception to the at-will employment doctrine is Petermann v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 396, 174 Cal.App.2d 184, 344 P.2d 25 (1959). In that case the plaintiff, an at-will employee of the defendant, a labor union, was subpoenaed to testify before a legislative committee about certain activities of that union. An officer of the union, acting as its agent, directed the plaintiff to testify falsely under oath at the hearings. After the plaintiff testified truthfully, the union fired him. The plaintiff then sued the union for wrongful discharge. The trial court granted the union's motion for summary judgment, but on appeal that judgment was reversed. The appellate court held that the right to discharge an at-will employee may be limited by considerations of public policy. The court noted that the concept of public policy was a vague one, not subject to precise definition, but concluded that the state had a declared public policy against perjury because perjury was a crime under the state criminal code. The court then said:

The threat of criminal prosecution would, in many cases, be a sufficient deterrent upon both the employer and employee, the former from soliciting and the latter from committing perjury. However, in order to more fully effectuate the state's declared policy against perjury, the civil law, too, must deny the employer his generally unlimited right to discharge an employee whose employment is at will, when the reason for the discharge is the employee's refusal to commit perjury.... To hold that one's continued employment could be made contingent upon his commission of a felonious act at the instance of his employer would be to encourage criminal conduct upon the part of both the employee and employer and would serve to contaminate the honest administration of public affairs. This is patently contrary to the public welfare.

Id. at 189, 344 P.2d at...

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