Meech v. Hillhaven West, Inc.

Decision Date29 June 1989
Docket NumberNo. 88-410,88-410
Citation46 St.Rep. 1058,238 Mont. 21,776 P.2d 488
Parties, 58 USLW 2048, 112 Lab.Cas. P 56,073, 4 IER Cases 737 Russell E. MEECH, Plaintiff, v. HILLHAVEN WEST, INC., and R. Ron Semingson, Defendants.
CourtMontana Supreme Court

Best Law Offices, Michael Best argued, Great Falls, for plaintiff.

James, Gray & McCafferty, Robert F. James, Great Falls, Jackson, Lewis, Schnitzler and Krupman, Joel P. Kelly argued, and Elizabeth Platte, Johnson on the brief, Los Angeles, Cal., for respondent.

Church, Harris, Johnson & Williams; Cresap S. McCracken, Great Falls, Patrick W. Shea, Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker, Washington, D.C., for amicus curiae.

McDONOUGH, Justice.

This opinion concerns questions certified to this Court by the United States District Court for the District of Montana, Great Falls Division, Honorable Paul G. Hatfield presiding. The questions are as follows:

(1) Is the Montana Wrongful Discharge From Employment Act, §§ 39-2-901 to 39-2-914, MCA, unconstitutional in that it serves to wrongfully deprive an individual falling within the purview of the Act from his or her right to "full legal redress" within the meaning of Article II, § 16 of the Montana Constitution?

(2) Are those provisions of the Montana Wrongful Discharge From Employment Act which expressly prohibit recovery of noneconomic damages, and limit the recovery of punitive damages, violative of an individual's right to "full legal redress" within the meaning of Article II, § 16 of the Montana Constitution?

We answer "No" to both questions.

Petitioner Meech's action in the United States District Court claims damages for wrongful termination from employment, breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress. Meech also seeks punitive damages for allegedly oppressive, malicious, and unjustifiable conduct on the part of Meech's former employer, respondent Hillhaven. The claims grew from the alleged wrongful discharge of Meech by Hillhaven. Hillhaven moved to dismiss asserting that the Montana Wrongful Discharge From Employment Act (Act) precluded Meech's common-law claims. Meech responded to the motion by contending that the Act violated Article II, § 16 of the Montana Constitution. Certification of the questions presented here followed. Before fully answering the questions, a brief summary of the Act aids in understanding the issues.

The Act provides the exclusive remedy and procedure for actions formerly governed to a great extent by common-law requirements:

Preemption of common-law remedies: Except as provided in this part, no claim for discharge may arise from tort or express or implied contract.

Section 39-2-913, MCA. The Act exempts from its provisions causes of action for discharge governed by other state or federal statutory procedures for contesting discharge disputes. For example, the Act exempts from its provisions, discriminatory discharges, and actions for wrongful discharge from employment covered by written collective bargaining agreements or controlled by a written contract for a specific term. For other wrongful discharge claims, however, the Act provides the exclusive procedure. Sections 39-2-912 to 39-2-913, MCA. The Act repeals Montana statutes which formerly granted to both employees and employers the right to terminate the employment relationship for fault on the part of the other party. Sections 39-2-504 to 39-2-505, MCA (1985). The Act's provisions on discharge also limit the operation of § 39-2-503, MCA, Montana's "at-will" statute. See § 39-2-902, MCA. In place of the prior governing statutes and the common-law causes of action it abrogates, the Act provides a statutorily defined cause of action for wrongful discharge.

The Act broadly defines "discharge" to include constructive discharge. Section 39-2-903, MCA. Covered employees may sue for discharges defined as wrongful under the Act. Section 39-2-904, MCA. Three causes of action for "wrongful" discharge exist under the Act: discharge in retaliation for an employee's refusal to violate public policy or for reporting a violation of public policy, discharge in violation of the express provisions of the employer's written personnel policies, and discharge for reasons other than good cause as defined in the Act. The Act limits the time for bringing a cause under its provisions to one year from the date of discharge. Section 39-2-904, MCA.

The Act establishes the extent of employers' liability for wrongful discharge. Under the Act, plaintiffs have no claim to damages for "pain and suffering, emotional distress, compensatory damages, or punitive damages, or any form of damages, except as provided for in subsections (1) and (2) [of § 39-2-905, MCA]." Subsections (1) and (2) of § 39-2-905, MCA, provide damages for lost wages and fringe benefits, together with interest thereon for a period not to exceed four years from the date of discharge. The Act defines the value of employee paid pension plans, insurance coverage, vacation time, and sick time as fringe benefits. Subsection (2) provides for an award of punitive damages where claimants can show by clear and convincing evidence actual malice or actual fraud. Interim earnings, including those the claimant could have earned with reasonable diligence, are to be subtracted from the award for lost wages. Section 39-2-905(1), MCA. The Act also provides an incentive for arbitration as an alternative mechanism for settling employment disputes. Section 39-2-913, MCA.

Meech in essence argues that the Act denies his fundamental right to full legal redress under Article II, § 16 of the Montana Constitution. Meech also contends that the Act violates equal protection by denying the fundamental right to full legal redress to a class of claimants without demonstrating that the classification furthers a compelling state interest. See Corrigan v. Janney (Mont.1981), 626 P.2d 838, 38 St.Rep. 545; White v. State (1983), 203 Mont. 363, 661 P.2d 1272; Pfost v. State (1986), 219 Mont. 206, 713 P.2d 495. Hillhaven answers that the Act does not violate equal protection of the laws or infringe on a fundamental right to full legal redress because Article II, § 16 of the Montana Constitution guarantees only a right of access to courts to seek a remedy for wrongs recognized by common-law or statutory authority, and the legislature may alter common-law causes of action to promote a legitimate state interest. See Shea v. North Butte Mining Co. (1919), 55 Mont. 522, 179 P. 499; Stewart v. Standard Publishing Co. (1936), 102 Mont. 43, 55 P.2d 694; Reeves v. Ille Electric Co. (1976), 170 Mont. 104, 551 P.2d 647. We agree with Hillhaven and overrule Corrigan, White, and Pfost insofar as they hold that Article II, § 16 of the Montana Constitution guarantees a fundamental right to full legal redress.



Summarized, this section covers the following points:

A. The conclusion that Article II, § 16 of the Montana Constitution does not create a fundamental right results from examination of long-standing, fundamental principles of constitutional interpretation.

B. The basic rule that the legislature may alter the common law harmonizes with an interpretation of Article II, § 16, as only a mandate to the courts.

C. It also follows from the words of the original guarantee, and the meaning intended for the 1972 amendment to the original guarantee, that Article II, § 16, does not guarantee a fundamental right to a particular cause of action, remedy, or redress.

D. Judicial creation of such a fundamental right in this context would also violate the elemental principle of separation of powers.

E. Meech's arguments on these points are inapposite.

A. Historically, Courts Have Construed Constitutional Guarantees in Light of the Particular Abuses Those Guarantees Seek to Prevent.

In construing a constitutional guarantee, courts "have looked to the object and purpose to be accomplished by the provision." C.J. Antieau, Constitutional Construction § 3.05 (1982). A " 'very useful key to the construction [of] a constitutional guarantee is to inquire what was the evil to be removed, and what remedy did the new instrument propose; ....' " C.J. Antieau, Constitutional Construction § 3.05 (1982) (quoting Miller, Lectures on Constitutional Law 82 (1891)).

Construing our speedy remedy guarantee in light of the particular abuses the framers sought to correct supports the argument that the clause does not guarantee a fundamental right to "full legal redress." The predecessor to Article II, § 16, was Article III, § 6 of the 1889 Montana Constitution, which reads as follows:

Courts of justice shall be open to every person, and a speedy remedy afforded for every injury of person, property, or character; and that right and justice shall be administered without sale, denial, or delay.

The principal cases Hillhaven relies on, Shea, Stewart, and Reeves, concluded that Article III, § 6 of the 1889 Constitution did not constrict legislative powers because the article only provided a mandate to the courts to provide equal access to causes of action recognized at law. Shea, 179 P. at 502; Stewart, 55 P.2d at 696; Reeves, 551 P.2d at 651; cf. State ex rel. Carlin v. District Court (1945), 118 Mont. 127, 164 P.2d 155 (trial court's failure to convene jury for case long awaiting jury trial because of inconvenience to jurors violates the mandate in Montana's remedy guarantee requiring that courts provide a proper administration of justice); Tooke v. Miles City Production Credit Association (Mont.1988), 763 P.2d 1111, 45 St.Rep.1993 (fact that United States District Courts for the District of Montana deny federal subject matter jurisdiction of tort claims against production credit unions weighs for finding subject...

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