Amos v. Oakdale Knitting Co., No. 278A91

Docket NºNo. 278A91
Citation331 N.C. 348, 416 S.E.2d 166
Case DateMay 08, 1992
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of North Carolina

Page 166

416 S.E.2d 166
331 N.C. 348, 30 Wage & Hour Cas. (BNA) 1467,
123 Lab.Cas. P 57,108, 7 IER Cases 714
Sharon AMOS, Kathy Hall and Earline Marshall
v.
OAKDALE KNITTING COMPANY and Walter Mooney, III.
No. 278A91.
Supreme Court of North Carolina.
May 8, 1992.

Page 167

[331 N.C. 349] Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy and Kennedy by Harvey L. Kennedy and Harold L. Kennedy, III, Winston-Salem, for plaintiff-appellants.

Allman Spry Humphreys Leggett & Howington, P.A. by W. Thomas White, David C. Smith and W. Rickert Hinnant, Winston-Salem, for defendant-appellees.

J. Wilson Parker, Deborah Leonard Parker, Wake Forest University, School of Law, Wake Forest, J. Michael McGuinness, Lisa A. Parlagreco, Gayle C. Wintjen and McGuiness S. Parlagreco, Boston, Mass., for North Carolina Academy of Trial Lawyers.

Elliot, Pishko, Gelbin & Morgan by Robert M. Elliot, Winston-Salem, for North Carolina Civ. Liberties Union Legal Foundation, amici curiae.

Pamela R. DiStefano and Maureen A. Sweeney, Raleigh, for Farmworkers Legal Services of North Carolina, amicus curiae.

[331 N.C. 350] FRYE, Justice.

For the first time since our decision in Coman v. Thomas Manufacturing Co., 325 N.C. 172, 381 S.E.2d 445 (1989), we examine the contours of the public policy exception to the employment-at-will doctrine. Three issues are presented: (1) does firing an employee for refusing to work for less than the statutory minimum wage violate the public policy of North Carolina? (2) does the availability of alternative remedies prevent a plaintiff from seeking tort remedies for wrongful discharge based on the public policy exception to the employment-at-will doctrine? and (3) did Coman recognize a separate and distinct exception to the employment-at-will doctrine based on "bad faith" termination?

For the reasons outlined below, we hold that firing an employee for refusing to work for less than the statutory minimum wage violates the public policy of North Carolina. Furthermore, we hold that absent (a) federal preemption or (b) the intent of our state legislature to supplant the common law with exclusive statutory remedies, the availability of alternative federal or state remedies does not prevent a plaintiff from seeking tort remedies for wrongful discharge based on the public policy exception. Based on these two holdings, we conclude that plaintiffs in this case have stated a valid claim for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy. Finally, we hold that Coman did not recognize a separate and distinct "bad faith" exception to the employment-at-will doctrine.

On 27 January 1989, plaintiffs Amos, Hall, and Marshall filed a complaint in Surry County Superior Court alleging the following facts. In February 1988, plaintiffs, employees at defendant Oakdale Knitting

Page 168

Company, learned that their pay had been reduced to $2.18 per hour, below the statutory minimum wage. When they inquired of their supervisor, Herbert Bowman, as to why their pay had been reduced below the minimum wage, they were instructed to talk with defendant Walter Mooney, III, one of the owners of Oakdale Knitting. When Mooney arrived at the plant, he told the plaintiffs that they either had to work for the reduced pay or they were fired. Plaintiffs refused to work for $2.18 per hour and were terminated.

Plaintiffs' complaint alleges that their firing violates the public policy of North Carolina as set forth in N.C.G.S. § 95-25.3--the minimum wage section of the state's Wage and Hour Act. Plaintiffs sought actual damages, including lost wages, and special damages [331 N.C. 351] for "great worry, embarrassment, humiliation, anxiety and mental and emotional distress." Plaintiffs also sought punitive damages.

Defendants filed a motion to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted pursuant to N.C.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). On 6 April 1989, Judge Morgan granted defendants' motion and dismissed the action. Plaintiffs appealed to the Court of Appeals, which affirmed the trial court, holding that plaintiffs had not stated a valid claim for wrongful discharge. Amos v. Oakdale Knitting Co., 102 N.C.App. 782, 403 S.E.2d 565 (1991). Judge Johnson dissented on the narrow ground that plaintiffs' complaint had stated a claim pursuant to N.C.G.S. § 95-25.22 (recovery of unpaid wages under the Wage and Hour Act). Plaintiffs appealed to this Court based on the dissenting opinion; on 14 August 1991 we allowed plaintiffs' petition for discretionary review as to additional issues. We now reverse the Court of Appeals.

I.

This case comes to us, via the Court of Appeals, on a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. For purposes of this appeal, therefore, all allegations of fact are taken as true. Jackson v. Bumgardner, 318 N.C. 172, 174-75, 347 S.E.2d 743, 745 (1986).

In Coman v. Thomas Manufacturing Co., 325 N.C. 172, 381 S.E.2d 445, plaintiff Coman alleged that he was discharged from his job as a long-distance truck driver after refusing to violate federal transportation regulations. Coman brought suit for wrongful discharge. This Court reversed the Court of Appeals, which had agreed with the trial court's dismissal of the action, and allowed Coman's suit to proceed. In so doing, we explicitly recognized a public policy exception to the well-entrenched employment-at-will doctrine, quoting with approval the following language from the Court of Appeals' opinion in Sides v. Duke University, 74 N.C.App. 331, 328 S.E.2d 818, disc. rev. denied, 314 N.C. 331, 333 S.E.2d 490 (1985):

"[W]hile there may be a right to terminate a contract at will for no reason, or for an arbitrary or irrational reason, there can be no right to terminate such a contract for an unlawful reason or purpose that contravenes public policy. A different interpretation would encourage and sanction lawlessness, which law by its very nature is designed to discourage and prevent."

[331 N.C. 352] Coman, 325 N.C. at 175, 381 S.E.2d at 447 (quoting Sides, 74 N.C.App. at 342, 328 S.E.2d at 826). We then said that public policy "has been defined as the principle of law which holds that no citizen can lawfully do that which has a tendency to be injurious to the public or against the public good." Id., 74 N.C.App. at 175 n. 2, 381 S.E.2d at 447 n. 2 (citing Petermann v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters, 174 Cal.App.2d 184, 344 P.2d 25 (1959)).

The first issue in this case, then, is whether defendants' alleged decision to fire plaintiffs for refusing to work for less than the statutory minimum wage is injurious to the public or against the public good. Stated differently, has defendants' conduct as alleged by plaintiffs violated the public policy of North Carolina? We note at the outset that both courts below indicated that defendants had, indeed, violated this state's stated public policy that employees such as

Page 169

plaintiffs be paid at least the statutory minimum wage. Judge Morgan, in his order granting defendants' 12(b)(6) motion, said defendants' conduct "offends this Court, and also appears to violate the public policy of this State as set out in N.C.G.S. 95-25.3." Judge Morgan, however, felt constrained by the Court of Appeals' decision in Coman, which had yet to be reversed by this Court. See Coman v. Thomas Manufacturing Co., 91 N.C.App. 327, 371 S.E.2d 731 (1988), rev'd, 325 N.C. 172, 381 S.E.2d 445 (1989). Under Coman, as decided by the Court of Appeals and interpreted by Judge Morgan, the public policy exception was limited to instances in which an employer attempted to interfere with an employee's testimony in a legal proceeding. The Court of Appeals in this case also expressed its strong disapproval of defendants' alleged conduct: "By this opinion we do not in any way condone an employer's violation of the minimum wage law with the resultant hardship and inconvenience to its employees, and we expressly denounce such unlawful coercive attempts to deprive employees of the wages to which they are lawfully entitled." Amos, 102 N.C.App. at 786, 403 S.E.2d at 567. The Court of Appeals, however, affirmed the trial court's dismissal of plaintiffs' complaint, holding that in order to state a valid claim for wrongful discharge, there must be no other remedy available. Id. at 787, 403 S.E.2d at 568. We address this issue later in the opinion.

Defendants argue in their brief that they did not violate public policy, as that term is defined in Coman, because the "alleged acts are peculiar to the plaintiff, are not injurious to the public, and do not in any way affect the public good." Defendants then [331 N.C. 353] suggest that in order to state a valid claim for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy an employee must either be required to engage in unlawful conduct or the employer's conduct must threaten public safety. Defendants read Coman too narrowly. Although the definition of "public policy" approved by this Court does not include a laundry list of what is or is not "injurious to the public or against the public good," 1 at the very least public policy is violated when an employee is fired in contravention of express policy declarations contained in the North Carolina General Statutes.

Article 2A of Chapter 95 of the North Carolina General Statutes, the Wage and Hour Act, provides:

(b) The public policy of this State is declared as follows: The wage levels of employees, hours of labor, payment of earned wages, and the well-being of minors are subjects of concern requiring legislation to promote the general welfare of the people of the State without jeopardizing the competitive position of North Carolina business and industry. The General Assembly declares that the general welfare of the State requires the enactment of this law under the police power of the State.

N.C.G.S. § 95-25.1(b) (1989) 2. Accordingly, the legislature set a minimum wage of $3.35 per hour effective 1 January 1983, with subsequent...

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  • Howard v. Coll. of the Albemarle, No. 2:15–CV–39–D
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. Eastern District of North Carolina
    • March 27, 2017
    ...S.E.2d 151, 159–63 (2004) (McCullough, J., dissenting)); Garner, 350 N.C. at 568–72, 515 S.E.2d at 439–41 ; Amos v. Oakdale Knitting Co., 331 N.C. 348, 350–54, 416 S.E.2d 166, 167–70 (1992) ; Coman v. Thomas Mfg. Co., 325 N.C. 172, 176–78, 381 S.E.2d 445, 447–49 (1989). To prove a claim of ......
  • Feldman v. Law Enforcement Associates Corp.., No. 5:10–CV–08–BR.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. Eastern District of North Carolina
    • March 10, 2011
    ...claim for wages allegedly owed. “The Wage and Hour Act ... does not expressly preclude common law remedies.” Amos v. Oakdale Knitting Co., 331 N.C. 348, 416 S.E.2d 166, 172 (1992). Furthermore, LEA concedes that no North Carolina court, or any federal court applying North Carolina law, has ......
  • Feldman v. Law Enforcement Assoc.s Corp., NO. 5:10-CV-08-BR
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. Eastern District of North Carolina
    • March 10, 2011
    ...claim for wages allegedly owed. "The Wage and Hour Act... does not expressly preclude common law remedies." Amos v. Oakdale Knitting Co., 416 S.E.2d 166, 172 (N.C. 1992). Furthermore, LEA concedes that no North Carolina court, or any federal court applying North Carolina law, has directly h......
  • Johnson v. North Carolina, No. 5:11–CV–57.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. Western District of North Carolina
    • October 17, 2012
    ...is fired in contravention of express policy declarations contained in the North Carolina General Statutes.” Amos v. Oakdale Knitting Co., 331 N.C. 348, 416 S.E.2d 166, 169 (1992). Utilizing this precedent, the Fourth Circuit and the North Carolina Court of Appeals have likewise adopted a na......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
152 cases
  • Howard v. Coll. of the Albemarle, No. 2:15–CV–39–D
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. Eastern District of North Carolina
    • March 27, 2017
    ...S.E.2d 151, 159–63 (2004) (McCullough, J., dissenting)); Garner, 350 N.C. at 568–72, 515 S.E.2d at 439–41 ; Amos v. Oakdale Knitting Co., 331 N.C. 348, 350–54, 416 S.E.2d 166, 167–70 (1992) ; Coman v. Thomas Mfg. Co., 325 N.C. 172, 176–78, 381 S.E.2d 445, 447–49 (1989). To prove a claim of ......
  • Feldman v. Law Enforcement Associates Corp.., No. 5:10–CV–08–BR.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. Eastern District of North Carolina
    • March 10, 2011
    ...claim for wages allegedly owed. “The Wage and Hour Act ... does not expressly preclude common law remedies.” Amos v. Oakdale Knitting Co., 331 N.C. 348, 416 S.E.2d 166, 172 (1992). Furthermore, LEA concedes that no North Carolina court, or any federal court applying North Carolina law, has ......
  • Feldman v. Law Enforcement Assoc.s Corp., NO. 5:10-CV-08-BR
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. Eastern District of North Carolina
    • March 10, 2011
    ...claim for wages allegedly owed. "The Wage and Hour Act... does not expressly preclude common law remedies." Amos v. Oakdale Knitting Co., 416 S.E.2d 166, 172 (N.C. 1992). Furthermore, LEA concedes that no North Carolina court, or any federal court applying North Carolina law, has directly h......
  • Johnson v. North Carolina, No. 5:11–CV–57.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. Western District of North Carolina
    • October 17, 2012
    ...is fired in contravention of express policy declarations contained in the North Carolina General Statutes.” Amos v. Oakdale Knitting Co., 331 N.C. 348, 416 S.E.2d 166, 169 (1992). Utilizing this precedent, the Fourth Circuit and the North Carolina Court of Appeals have likewise adopted a na......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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