Adler v. American Standard Corp.

Citation291 Md. 31,432 A.2d 464
Decision Date16 July 1981
Docket NumberNo. 12,12
Parties, 115 L.R.R.M. (BNA) 4130 Gerald F. ADLER v. AMERICAN STANDARD CORPORATION Misc.
CourtCourt of Appeals of Maryland

J. Owen Zurhellen, III, New York City (Schonwald, Haber, Zurhellen & Mullman of New York City, and Stephen D. Langhoff and Smith & Langhoff, Baltimore, on brief), for appellant.

H. Thomas Howell and Sidney G. Leech, Baltimore (Semmes, Bowen & Semmes, Baltimore, on brief), for appellee.


MURPHY, Chief Judge.

The United States District Court for the District of Maryland, pursuant to Maryland Code (1974, 1980 Repl.Vol.) § 12-601 of the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article, has certified for our determination the following questions of state law:

(1) Is a cause of action for "abusive discharge" recognized under the substantive law of the State of Maryland?

(2) Do the allegations of the Amended Complaint, if taken as true, state a cause of action for "abusive discharge" under the substantive law of the State of Maryland?

The amended complaint was filed by Gerald Adler against American Standard Corporation (the Corporation) to recover general, special and punitive damages for Adler's claimed "abusive discharge" from his employment with the Corporation. Adler alleged in his complaint that he was employed in March of 1975 as an Assistant General Manager of the Corporation's Commercial Printing Division at a salary of $37,000 per year; that James Kinealy was Vice President and General Manager of the Division and James Sinclair was Vice President in charge of the Corporation's Graphic Arts Group, which encompassed the Commercial Printing Division; and that it was Adler's responsibility to conduct a thorough analysis of the management and operational structure of the Commercial Printing Division and to propose changes which would promote efficiency in management and operations and enhance the accuracy of intra-corporate transmittal of information. The complaint alleged that Adler was "complimented for his efforts by his superiors" and by August 1, 1978 his annual salary had been increased to $60,000. According to further averments of the amended complaint, Adler "discovered numerous inadequacies in the management and operation of the Commercial Printing Division and, also, numerous improper and possibly illegal practices, including:

a. Attempts to treat capital expenditures as expenses.

b. Payment of commercial bribes.

c. Falsification of sales and income information, and alteration of commercial documents to support the falsified information.

d. Misuse of corporate funds by officers for their personal benefit.

e. Manipulation of work-in-process inventory information.

f. Alteration of forecasts in connection with intra-corporate financial reporting."

The amended complaint alleged that on repeated occasions Adler reported his "discoveries" to Kinealy and Sinclair and made recommendations respecting their correction but that Kinealy and Sinclair "consistently failed and refused to give consideration to plaintiff's discoveries and recommendations and, indeed, discouraged further efforts on his part." The complaint alleged that Adler communicated his findings to the Corporation's headquarters personnel on several occasions and "was praised for his candor, was urged to continue his efforts and was assured that his position would not be jeopardized by so doing"; that as a result of Adler's activities Kinealy and Sinclair "became increasingly insecure and suspicious that ... (Adler's) adherence to his stipulated responsibilities compromised their own positions"; that a high-level managerial meeting was scheduled for October 13, 1978, at which headquarters personnel were to be present; that Adler intended at that meeting "to discuss frankly the improprieties which troubled him"; that Kinealy and Sinclair insisted at that time that Adler resign; and that after Adler refused to resign, he received a letter signed by Kinealy and Sinclair on behalf of the Corporation informing him that his employment was terminated "for unsatisfactory performance." The amended complaint alleged that Adler's discharge by the Corporation "was motivated solely by its desire, and the desire of its superior management personnel, to conceal improprieties and illegal activities which plaintiff might have disclosed at the meeting scheduled for October 13, 1978 and on other occasions should he have remained in defendant's employ ... including the payment of commercial bribes and the falsification of corporate records and financial statistics, ... (which were) contrary to the public policy of the State of New York, the State of Maryland and of the United States, and thus constituted an abusive discharge."

The Corporation filed a motion to dismiss Adler's complaint on the ground that it failed to state a cause of action under Maryland law. In its Order of Certification, the District Court noted that a hearing was conducted on the motion to dismiss, at which Adler contended "that although he was an employee at will with no fixed term of employment and no written employment contract, he can maintain a cause of action against the defendant for 'abusive discharge' because the motives that prompted the defendant corporation to fire (him), namely the concealment of various activities (commercial bribery, falsification of corporate records, falsification of corporate financial data), were contrary to the public policy of the State of Maryland, especially in view of his satisfactory performance as evidenced by the regular salary increases and excellent performance appraisals." The Certification Order also noted that it was the Corporation's position that Maryland law does not recognize a cause of action for "abusive discharge," and that, in any event, Adler's discharge was prompted by a genuine dissatisfaction with his performance as an employee.


The common law rule, applicable in Maryland, is that an employment contract of indefinite duration, that is, at will, can be legally terminated at the pleasure of either party at any time. St. Comm'n on Human Rel. v. Amecom Div., 278 Md. 120, 360 A.2d 1 (1976); Vincent v. Palmer, 179 Md. 365, 19 A.2d 183 (1941); W., B. & A. R. R. Co. v. Moss, 127 Md. 12, 96 A. 273 (1915). Statutes enacted by many states have, however, engrafted exceptions upon the terminable at will doctrine that abrogate an employer's absolute right to discharge an at will employee for any or no reason. In Maryland, for example, under Maryland Code (1957, 1979 Repl.Vol.) Art. 49B, § 16(a)(1), it is unlawful for an employer to discharge any employee "because of ... race, color, religion, sex, age, national origin, marital status, or physical or mental handicap unrelated in nature and extent so as to reasonably preclude the performance of the employment ...." 1

Adler concedes that his discharge was not specifically prohibited by any Maryland statute. However, he urges that a judicial exception to the terminable at will doctrine be recognized in Maryland to permit an at will employee, discharged in a manner that contravenes public policy, to maintain a cause of action for abusive or wrongful discharge against his former employer. 2

Jurisdictions that have considered wrongful discharge actions as an exception to the common law terminable at will doctrine have followed essentially three courses of action. Some courts have flatly refused to recognize a cause of action for wrongful discharge, rigidly adhering to the rule that an employer's motivation for discharging an at will employee is irrelevant. See Bender Ship Repair, Inc. v. Stevens, 379 So.2d 594 (Ala.1980); Segal v. Arrow Industries Corp., 364 So.2d 89 (Fla.App.1978); Georgia Power Co. v. Busbin, 242 Ga. 612, 250 S.E.2d 442 (1978); Kelly v. Mississippi Valley Gas Co., 397 So.2d 874 (Miss.1981); Christy v. Petrus, 365 Mo. 1187, 295 S.W.2d 122 (1956); Dockery v. Lampart Table Co., 36 N.C.App. 293, 244 S.E.2d 272 (1978). Other courts, while declining to recognize a cause of action for wrongful discharge on the facts of the cases before them, have indicated a willingness to adopt a judicial exception to the terminable at will doctrine in a proper case. See, e. g., Lampe v. Presbyterian Med. Center, 41 Colo.App. 465, 590 P.2d 513 (1978); Jackson v. Minidoka Irrigation Dist., 98 Idaho 330, 563 P.2d 54 (1977); Scroghan v. Kraftco Corp., 551 S.W.2d 811 (Ky.1977); Keneally v. Orgain, 606 P.2d 127 (Mont.1980); Jones v. Keogh, 137 Vt. 562, 409 A.2d 581 (1979); Ward v. Frito-Lay, Inc., 95 Wis.2d 372, 290 N.W.2d 536 (Wis.App.1980). Still other courts have recognized a cause of action for wrongful discharge, either in tort or in contract, and in doing so have primarily focused upon the employer's motivation for discharging the employee.

Monge v. Beebe Rubber Co., 114 N.H. 130, 316 A.2d 549 (1974), held that an action for wrongful discharge of an at will employee would lie in contract. In that case, an at will employee had been fired as a result of her foreman's hostility towards her, which developed when she refused to socialize with him. The court, indicating that it sought to balance the interests of the employer and employee, affirmed the jury's award of damages and held that:

"(T)ermination by the employer of a contract of employment at will which is motivated by bad faith or malice or based on retaliation ... constitutes a breach of the employment contract." 3 Id. at 133, 316 A.2d at 551.

In Fortune v. National Cash Register Co., 373 Mass. 96, 364 N.E.2d 1251 (1977), a salesman employed at will had been discharged because the employer sought to avoid payment of bonuses that the salesman would have earned upon delivery of certain goods. The court permitted the salesman to recover in an action in contract. Although refusing to extend its ruling to all employment at will contracts, the court held that the contract before it...

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