Ray v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 20130940.

CourtSupreme Court of Utah
Citation359 P.3d 614,2015 UT 83
Docket NumberNo. 20130940.,20130940.
PartiesShawn H. RAY, Gabriel M. Stewart, Lori Poulsen, Derek Holt, and Eric Hunter, Appellants, v. WAL–MART STORES, INC., Appellee.
Decision Date17 September 2015

359 P.3d 614
2015 UT 83

Shawn H. RAY, Gabriel M. Stewart, Lori Poulsen, Derek Holt, and Eric Hunter, Appellants
v.
WAL–MART STORES, INC., Appellee.

No. 20130940.

Supreme Court of Utah.

Sept. 17, 2015.


359 P.3d 617

Lorraine P. Brown, Dennis A. Gladwell, Ogden, for appellants.

Kathleen W. Toth, James E. Ji, Salt Lake City, for appellee.

Chief Justice DURRANT authored the opinion of the Court, in which Justice DURHAM, Justice PARRISH, and Judge VOROS joined. Associate Chief Justice LEE filed a dissenting opinion. Due to his retirement, Justice NEHRING, did not participate herein; Court of Appeals Judge J. FREDERIC VOROS sat. Justice DENO G. HIMONAS became a member of the Court on February 13, 2015, after oral argument in this matter, and accordingly did not participate.

Chief Justice DURRANT, opinion of the Court:

Introduction

¶ 1 Under the at-will employment doctrine, an employer has broad discretion to manage its workforce and may, accordingly, fire an employee for any reason not prohibited by law. But there are several exceptions to at-will employment, including when an employee's termination violates a clear and substantial public policy of the State of Utah. In this case, several employees1 of Wal–Mart Stores, Inc. (Wal–Mart) were involved in physical confrontations with shoplifting customers and were ultimately fired for violating company policy. Wal–Mart's policy requires employees to disengage and withdraw from potentially violent situations. The Employees sued Wal–Mart in federal district court for wrongful termination, arguing that terminating a person's employment for exercising self-defense in the workplace violates Utah public policy. The district court concluded that their argument raised an issue of first impression under Utah law—whether the right of self-defense is the type of public policy that provides an exception to the at-will employment doctrine. Accordingly, it certified the following question of law to us: “Is the right of self-defense a substantial public policy exception to the at-will employment doctrine that provides the basis for a wrongful discharge action?”

¶ 2 We conclude that the policy favoring the right of self-defense is a public policy of sufficient clarity and weight to qualify as an exception to the at-will employment doctrine. But we limit the exception to situations where an employee reasonably believes that force is necessary to defend against an imminent threat of serious bodily harm and the employee has no opportunity to withdraw.

359 P.3d 618

Background

¶ 3 This case arises out of two separate incidents involving Wal–Mart employees and shoplifters.2 Each of the Employees was tasked with, among other things, investigating, documenting, and preventing the theft of merchandise by customers and employees from Wal–Mart stores. The Employees were fired for violating Wal–Mart's Policy AP–09, which provides,

If the Suspect is believed to possess a weapon, the Suspect must not be approached. If during an approach or investigation, it becomes apparent that the Suspect has a weapon or brandishes or threatens use of a weapon, all associates must disengage from the situation, withdraw to a safe position, and contact law enforcement.

If at any point the Suspect or any other [sic] involved becomes violent, disengage from the confrontation, withdraw to a safe position and contact law enforcement.

¶ 4 The first incident involved plaintiffs Derek Holt and Eric Hunter, who were employed at Wal–Mart's West Valley City, Utah store. Mr. Holt and Mr. Hunter confronted a shoplifter. When the shoplifter tried to run away, they grabbed her arms. During the ensuing struggle, the shoplifter pulled out a small pocketknife and shouted that she was going to stab Mr. Holt and Mr. Hunter if they did not let go. Mr. Holt and Mr. Hunter maintained their hold, however, and a customer helped pry the knife out of the shoplifter's hand. Wal–Mart terminated Mr. Holt's and Mr. Hunter's employment for violating Policy AP–09.

¶ 5 The second incident involved plaintiffs Shawn Ray, Lori Poulsen, and Gabriel Stewart, who were employed at Wal–Mart's Layton, Utah store. Several employees at that store, including Mr. Ray and Ms. Poulsen, approached a customer who was attempting to steal a laptop by concealing it in his pants and escorted him to the store's asset protection office, where they were joined by Mr. Stewart. There is some discrepancy regarding what happened next. According to Wal–Mart, the customer placed the laptop on a desk and stated, “You have your laptop, I am now going to leave, and I have something I am not supposed to have.” Ms. Poulsen saw the customer move a gun from his back to his coat pocket. A physical struggle ensued, resulting in the Wal–Mart employees pinning the customer against a wall and grabbing the gun.

¶ 6 The Employees' account of the incident differs somewhat. According to them, after the customer removed the laptop from his pants he said, “I have something I shouldn't have. Don't make me do this!” Ms. Poulsen noticed the customer had a gun and yelled “Gun! Hand!” The customer rushed towards the door but then turned and shoved Mr. Stewart against the wall and pressed the gun to his back. A skirmish resulted, and the Wal–Mart employees managed to remove the gun from the customer's hands and force him to the ground. Ultimately, Mr. Ray, Ms. Poulsen, and Mr. Stewart were all fired following the incident for violating Policy AP–09.

¶ 7 The Employees filed suit against Wal–Mart claiming that their terminations were in violation of Utah public policy. Wal–Mart filed a motion for summary judgment, which the federal district court granted in part by dismissing all of the Employees' causes of action other than their claim for wrongful termination in violation of public policy. With respect to that claim, the court certified to us the question of whether self-defense is a substantial public policy exception to the at-will employment doctrine, thus providing a basis for a wrongful termination action. For purposes of certifying the self-defense question, the federal district court asked us to assume that the Employees were unable to safely disengage from the incidents.3

359 P.3d 619

Standard of Review

¶ 8 “When a federal court certifies a question of law to this court, we are not presented with a decision to affirm or reverse ... [and thus] traditional standards of review do not apply.”4 Rather, “we answer the legal questions presented without resolving the underlying dispute.”5

Analysis

¶ 9 The question presented in this case is whether in Utah the right of self-defense embodies the type of clear and substantial public policy that qualifies as an exception to the at-will employment doctrine, and thus provides the basis for a wrongful discharge claim. The Employees contend that Utah law reflects a clear and substantial public policy favoring the right of self-defense, as evidenced by various legislative and constitutional provisions that protect the right. And they argue that the public policy interests in favor of self-defense outweigh an employer's competing interests where an employee faces an imminent threat of death or serious bodily harm and has no opportunity to withdraw.

¶ 10 In contrast, Wal–Mart argues that although Utah law evinces a policy favoring the right of self-defense, there is no evidence that the policy extends to the workplace. It further argues that even if there is such a public policy, it is not of sufficient public importance to qualify as an exception to at-will employment, because self-defense provides a purely private benefit to the person exercising the right. And finally, Wal–Mart argues that any public policy interest favoring self-defense is outweighed by an employer's countervailing interests in maintaining “de-escalation, non-confrontation [,] and workplace violence policies” and discouraging employee vigilantism.

¶ 11 Although we acknowledge that Wal–Mart's interest in regulating its workforce is important, we conclude that there is a clear and substantial public policy in Utah favoring the right of self-defense for three reasons. First, the right of self-defense is enshrined in Utah statutes, the Utah Constitution, and our common law decisions. Second, a policy favoring the right protects human life and deters crime, conferring substantial benefits on the public. And third, the public policy supporting the right of self-defense outweighs an employer's countervailing interests in circumstances where an employee reasonably believes that force is necessary to defend against an imminent threat of serious bodily injury and the employee has no opportunity to withdraw. Accordingly, we answer the certified question in the affirmative and hold that Utah law reflects a policy favoring the right of self-defense, and that policy is of sufficient magnitude to qualify as a substantial public policy exception to the at-will employment doctrine, but only under the narrow circumstances where an employee cannot withdraw and faces imminent serious bodily injury.

I. Legal Background

¶ 12 We begin by outlining the relevant legal...

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