Cronin v. Sheldon

Decision Date17 December 1999
Docket Number No. CV-98-0580-SA., No. CV-98-0495-SA
Citation991 P.2d 231,195 Ariz. 531
PartiesJanette CRONIN and Bruce Cronin, wife and husband, Petitioners. v. The Honorable Steven D. SHELDON, Judge of the Superior Court of the State of Arizona, in and for the County of Maricopa, Respondent. and Denny's Restaurants, Inc. and Herbert Eckhardt and Jane Doe Eckhardt, his Wife, Real Parties In Interest. Linda Finley, Petitioner. v. The Honorable John H. Seidel, Judge of the Superior Court of the State of Arizona, in and for the County of Maricopa, Respondent Judge, Calvary Rehabilitation Center, Real Party in Interest.
CourtArizona Supreme Court

Margrave Celmins, P.C. by Brownell K. Boothe, Bruce C. Smith and Langerman Law Offices, P.A. by Amy G. Langerman, Adrienne K. Wilson, Phoenix, Attorneys for Petitioners Cronin.

Snell and Wilmer by Lisa M. Coulter, Tibor Nagy and DeConcini, McDonald, Yetwin & Lacy by Jeffrey R. Simmons Attorneys, Phoenix, for Real Party in Interest Denny's Restaurants, Inc.

Jennings, Strouss & Salmon by Glenn J. Carter, John J. Egbert, Phoenix, Attorneys for Amici Curiae Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company and Southwest Gas Corporation.

Langerman Law Offices, P.A. by Amy G. Langerman, Adrienne K. Wilson, Phoenix, Attorneys for Petitioner Finley.

Lewis and Roca by Susan M. Freeman, Jane E. Reddin, Stephanie M. Cerasano, Phoenix, Attorneys for Real Party in Interest Calvary Rehabilitation Center.

OPINION.

JONES, Vice Chief Justice.

¶ 1 Petitioners Janette Cronin (Cronin) and Linda Finley (Finley) bring separate actions against their respective employers, Denny's Restaurants, Inc. (Denny's) and Calvary Rehabilitation Center (Calvary). We have consolidated the two cases because in relevant part they involve the same issue: Whether a cause of action alleging the tort of wrongful termination in violation of the public policy set forth in the Arizona Civil Rights Act (ACRA), A.R.S. §§ 41-1401 to -1492 (1999), may be constitutionally restricted to ACRA's statutory remedies by the exclusive remedies provision of the Employment Protection Act (EPA), A.R.S. § 23-1501(3)(b)(i) (Supp.1998). The state legislature enacted ACRA in 1965 and substantially amended it in 1974. The EPA was enacted in 1996.

I. Special Action Jurisdiction

¶ 2 We accept special action jurisdiction pursuant to Rule 4(a), Rules of Procedure for Special Actions, but we emphasize that "[d]irect filing in [the Supreme Court] is exceptional...." Green v. Superior Court, 132 Ariz. 468, 470, 647 P.2d 166, 168 (1982). The sole issue before us is one of law and of statewide significance, affecting employees and employers throughout Arizona. See Denton v. Superior Court, 190 Ariz. 152, 154, 945 P.2d 1283, 1285 (1997)

; Arizona Dep't of Pub. Safety v. Superior Court, 190 Ariz. 490, 493-94, 949 P.2d 983, 986-87 (App.1997).

¶ 3 Moreover, the cases at bar raise an issue of first impression. See Vo v. Superior Court, 172 Ariz. 195, 198, 836 P.2d 408, 411 (App.1992)

. The constitutionality of the EPA has been challenged on various grounds in both the federal and state courts, and numerous published articles express differing points of view. The potential exists that trial courts may produce conflicting results, see Denton, 190 Ariz. at 154,

945 P.2d at 1285; Valler v. Lee, 190 Ariz. 391, 392, 949 P.2d 51, 52 (App.1997), and the question of constitutionality now demands consistent, statewide application.

¶ 4 Though we accept jurisdiction, we reject petitioners' jurisdictional arguments. We disagree that under Special Action Rule 3(c), the trial courts acted arbitrarily, capriciously, or otherwise abused their discretion in upholding the constitutionality of the EPA. On the contrary, the trial courts did not ignore the law, but rather applied the EPA, presumptively a valid statute, to bar petitioners' wrongful discharge tort claims.

¶ 5 Nor do we agree that, pursuant to Special Action Rule 1(a), petitioners are afforded no equally plain, speedy and adequate remedy by appeal. See Purcell v. Superior Court, 172 Ariz. 166, 169, 835 P.2d 498, 501 (App.1992)

. While petitioners ultimately have an avenue of appeal available, such availability "does not foreclose the exercise of [an appellate] court's discretion to accept jurisdiction." Arizona Dep't of Pub. Safety,

190 Ariz. at 493,

949 P.2d at 986.

¶ 6 Accordingly, we take jurisdiction to decide the constitutional issue. Jurisdiction is predicated on article 6, § 5(3) of the Arizona Constitution and Special Action Rule 4(a).

II. Facts & Procedural History
A. Cronin's Claim

¶ 7 Petitioner Janette Cronin was employed as manager of a Denny's restaurant from March 19, 1993, until her discharge on July 3, 1996. During three years as manager, Cronin reported to Herbert Eckhardt, who, according to the complaint, propositioned her persistently and made inappropriate sexual remarks. Cronin claims Eckhardt's behavior continued despite her protests. She further alleges she was paid less than her male counterparts for a job requiring the same skills, efforts and responsibilities, and was singled out to train younger, less experienced male managers who were subsequently paid higher wages than she. Cronin also alleges she was assigned menial job duties by Eckhardt because of her sex, including the task of office cleaning.

¶ 8 In May 1996, Cronin informed Peter Trimble, Denny's human resources representative, of her complaints against Eckhardt. She alleges Trimble refused or otherwise failed to rectify the hostile workplace and refused to address her pay-disparity concerns. On May 15, Cronin went to the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to charge Eckhardt and Denny's with sexual harassment and discrimination. Because of this action, Cronin claims Eckhardt gave notice she would be fired. Cronin was in fact fired on July 3, 1996, ostensibly for violating Denny's alcoholic beverage service policy. She alleges the firing was pretextual—that in reality she was terminated in retaliation for asserting the EEOC charge. Cronin claims that while she did permit an underage employee to serve alcohol, this practice was common at Denny's and had been regularly permitted by Eckhardt and by the company.

¶ 9 On May 12, 1998, Cronin filed this action in superior court against Denny's and against Herbert and Jane Doe Eckhardt alleging several counts, including Count VII, a tort claim for wrongful termination in violation of public policy. Thereafter, she withdrew Count VII against Eckhardt, leaving the claim in place only as to Denny's. Denny's moved to dismiss Count VII on the ground that the EPA precluded Cronin's separate claim for wrongful discharge, and Cronin responded that the EPA is unconstitutional. The court granted Denny's motion. Cronin then filed the instant petition with this court, again asserting the EPA's unconstitutionality.

¶ 10 As a threshold issue, Denny's maintains that Cronin is procedurally barred by the statute of limitations from prosecuting Count VII of her complaint. On the date Cronin was terminated, wrongful termination claims in Arizona were governed by the two-year statute of limitations set forth in A.R.S. § 12-542 (1992). The legislature, however, shortened the statutory period to one year, effective July 20, 1996. See A.R.S. § 12-541(4) (Supp.1998). Denny's argues, pursuant to A.R.S. § 12-505(C) (1992),1 that the shorter period applies to bar Cronin's wrongful termination action and urges this court to dispose of the action now, to avoid the futility of returning Cronin's claims to the trial court to produce the same result. We decline to rule on the limitations question because certain aspects are unique to this case, and the trial court, having not yet addressed the matter, should be the first to deal with possible factual issues relative to the period of limitations.

B. Finley's Claim

¶ 11 Petitioner Finley was employed as a family therapist for Calvary from 1989 until her discharge on March 6, 1998. Finley alleges that despite her years of solid performance and consistently excellent evaluations, her termination by Calvary was retaliatory, prompted by the fact that she had previously reported her supervisor, Dr. John Stapert, for sexual harassment. Calvary claims the termination was for poor work performance.

¶ 12 Finley claims the situation began in the fall of 1997 with the hire of Stapert. Stapert is alleged to have directed sexually inappropriate conduct toward her, as well as toward other female employees and clients. Finley first reported Stapert's behavior to Calvary's executive director, Jeff Shook, in January 1998 and attempted numerous times thereafter to resolve the situation. Finley asserts she was recommended for termination by Stapert and was fired by reason of her complaints about Stapert's inappropriate behavior.

¶ 13 In June 1998, after her discharge, Finley filed a discrimination and harassment claim with the Arizona Civil Rights Division and the EEOC and subsequently received a right to sue letter. On July 17, Finley filed the instant action in superior court, alleging, inter alia, wrongful termination in violation of public policy and discrimination based on retaliation.

¶ 14 Calvary, like Denny's, invoked the affirmative defense that the EPA should operate to bar Finley's tort claim for wrongful discharge. Finley urged the invalidity of the statute. On cross-motions for summary judgment directly addressing the constitutionality of the EPA, the trial court found the statute did not violate the Arizona Constitution and granted Calvary summary judgment on the wrongful discharge count. Finley thereafter filed the present petition for special action with this court, accompanied by a motion to consolidate Finley with Cronin. We accepted jurisdiction and granted the motion.

C. Holding and Constitutional Determination

¶ 15 We now hold that tort claims alleging wrongful termination in violation of the public policy set forth in ACRA are...

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