Thibodeau v. Design Group One Architects, LLC

Decision Date02 July 2002
Docket Number(SC 16593)
Citation802 A.2d 731,260 Conn. 691
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court
PartiesNICOLE ANN THIBODEAU v. DESIGN GROUP ONE ARCHITECTS, LLC

Sullivan, C. J., and Borden, Norcott, Palmer and Vertefeuille, Js. Michael D. O'Connell, with whom were Julia B. Morris and, on the brief, Diane C. Mokriski, for the appellant (defendant).

Gary Phelan, with whom, on the brief, were Kelly Balser and Elaine Rubinson, for the appellee (plaintiff).

Bernard E. Jacques filed a brief for the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, Inc., as amicus curiae. Jennifer Jaff, Erin Boggs, Philip D. Tegeler and Lenora M. Lapidus, filed a brief for the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union Foundation et al. as amici curiae.

Jonathan L. Gould and Maureen M. Murphy filed a brief for the Connecticut Employment Lawyers Association et al. as amici curiae.

Opinion

PALMER, J.

Under the Fair Employment Practices Act, General Statutes § 46a-51 et seq. (act), employers with three or more employees are prohibited from discriminating against their employees on the basis of sex, including discrimination related to pregnancy. See General Statutes § 46a-60 (a) (1) and (7),1 and § 46a-51 (10)2 and (17).3 At common law, an employer may terminate an at-will employee for any reason unless that reason violates some important public policy. This certified appeal raises an issue that lies at the intersection of the act and the public policy exception to the at-will employment doctrine, namely, whether an employer with fewer than three employees, although not subject to liability under the act, nevertheless is barred, on public policy grounds, from discharging an at-will employee on the basis of pregnancy. Because the act reflects an unambiguous policy determination by the legislature that employers with fewer than three employees shall not be subject to liability for sex discrimination, including pregnancy-related discrimination, we conclude that a common-law claim for wrongful discharge on the basis of pregnancy will not lie against those employers.

The plaintiff, Nicole Ann Thibodeau, commenced this action against the defendant, Design Group One Architects, LLC, her former employer, claiming that she had been wrongfully terminated because of her pregnancy. The trial court rendered summary judgment for the defendant, concluding that the plaintiff's discharge did not contravene public policy because the exemption under the act for employers with fewer than three employees reflects the considered judgment of the legislature that, for policy reasons, such employers shall not be required to defend against employment discrimination claims. The plaintiff appealed to the Appellate Court, which reversed the judgment of the trial court. Thibodeau v. Design Group One Architects, LLC, 64 Conn. App. 573, 594, 781 A.2d 363 (2001). We granted the defendant's petition for certification to appeal to this court; Thibodeau v. Design Group One Architects, LLC, 258 Conn. 919, 782 A.2d 1252 (2001); and now reverse the judgment of the Appellate Court.

The relevant facts and procedural history are set forth in the opinion of the Appellate Court. "In April, 1997, the defendant hired the plaintiff as a receptionist, secretary and bookkeeper. She was an at-will employee. At all times relevant, the defendant employed two individuals and had three principals. The act applies only to those employers with three or more employees. General Statutes § 46a-51 (10).4

"The plaintiff notified the defendant of her pregnancy in December, 1997. The defendant terminated the plaintiff's employment on or about April 28, 1998. The plaintiff filed a two count complaint on November 5, 1999, alleging wrongful termination of her employment in violation of public policy and a violation of the duty of good faith and fair dealing. The plaintiff alleged in her complaint that the defendant had terminated her `as a result of her doctor appointments,' which reason contravened public policy. In its answer, the defendant alleged that the plaintiff's termination stemmed from her performance deficiencies. The defendant alternatively denied that the plaintiff could avail herself of Connecticut's public policy or federal public policy against pregnancy discrimination as embodied in General Statutes § 46a-60 (a) (7)5 and [Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq.],6 respectively. "On January 14, 2000, the defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, claiming that the public policy proffered by the plaintiff did not apply to the facts of the case and, therefore, that the defendant was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. On March 31, 2000, the court granted the defendant's motion and rendered judgment . . . in favor of the defendant as to count one, which alleged wrongful discharge. [The trial court reasoned that although there exists in this state a public policy against employment discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, that policy, under the act, is limited to employers with three or more employees and, therefore, is inapplicable to the defendant.] Because the court determined that the defendant did not wrongfully discharge the plaintiff in violation of [that] public policy, the second count, alleging a violation of the duty of good faith and fair dealing, necessarily failed.7 . . . Thus, the court rendered summary judgment as to both counts."8

(Citation omitted.) Thibodeau v. Design Group One Architects, LLC, supra, 64 Conn. App. 575-76.

On appeal, the Appellate Court reversed the judgment of the trial court, concluding that, notwithstanding the exemption afforded small employers under the act, "there is a public policy in Connecticut against sex discrimination in employment sufficiently expressed in statutory and constitutional law to allow a [wrongful discharge] cause of action for discrimination based on pregnancy [against such employers]."9 Id., 574. We granted the defendant's petition for certification limited to the following issue: "Did the Appellate Court properly conclude that there exists a public policy in Connecticut that forbids an employer of fewer than three employees from terminating an at-will employee on the basis of pregnancy?" Thibodeau v. Design Group One Architects, LLC, supra, 258 Conn. 919. We disagree with the Appellate Court that this state's public policy prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of pregnancy extends to employers with fewer than three employees. Consequently, we conclude that the trial court properly determined that the defendant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

We begin our analysis of the certified issue by setting forth the law governing the public policy exception to the at-will employment doctrine. "In Connecticut, an employer and employee have an at-will employment relationship in the absence of a contract to the contrary. Employment at will grants both parties the right to terminate the relationship for any reason, or no reason, at any time without fear of legal liability. Beginning in the late 1950s, however, courts began to carve out certain exceptions to the at-will employment doctrine, thereby giving rise to tort claims for wrongful discharge. Certain employer practices provoked public disfavor, and unlimited employer discretion to fire employees eventually yielded to a more limited rule." Thibodeau v. Design Group One Architects, LLC, supra, 64 Conn. App. 577.

Following that trend, this court, in Sheets v. Teddy's Frosted Foods, Inc., 179 Conn. 471, 427 A.2d 385 (1980), "sanctioned a common-law cause of action for wrongful discharge in situations in which the reason for the discharge involved impropriety derived from some important violation of public policy. Id., 475;10 see Morris v. Hartford Courant Co., 200 Conn. 676, 679, 513 A.2d 66 (1986); Magnan v. Anaconda Industries, Inc., 193 Conn. 558, 572, 479 A.2d 781 (1984). In doing so, we recognized a public policy limitation on the traditional employment at-will doctrine in an effort to balance the competing interests of employers and employees. Antinerella v. Rioux, 229 Conn. 479, 492, 642 A.2d 699 (1994). In Morris v. Hartford Courant Co., supra, 680, we recognized the inherent vagueness of the concept of public policy and the difficulty encountered when attempting to define precisely the contours of the public policy exception. In evaluating claims, [w]e look to see whether the plaintiff has . . . alleged that his discharge violated any explicit statutory or constitutional provision . . . or whether he alleged that his dismissal contravened any judicially conceived notion of public policy. . . . Faulkner v. United Technologies Corp., 240 Conn. 576, 580-81, 693 A.2d 293 (1997)." (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Daley v. Aetna Life & Casualty Co., 249 Conn. 766, 798, 734 A.2d 112 (1999); accord Parsons v. United Technologies Corp., 243 Conn. 66, 76-77, 700 A.2d 655 (1997).

On several occasions since the release of our decision in Sheets, we have recognized the sufficiency of a claim under the public policy exception to the at-will employment doctrine. For example, in Antinerella v. Rioux, supra, 229 Conn. 479, we held that the plaintiff, a deputy sheriff, had stated a claim for wrongful termination against the defendant, the high sheriff of Hartford county; id., 493-94; predicated upon the deputy sheriff's allegation that the high sheriff had discharged him "in order to take [over] his [process serving] business and personally benefit under [a] statutorily forbidden and illegal fee splitting arrangement he had made with several appointed deputy sheriffs."11 Id., 491. In so holding, we noted that the "case [had] present[ed] claims that genuinely involve[d] the mandates of public policy derived directly from state statutes." Id., 493.

In Faulkner v. United Technologies Corp., supra, 240 Conn. 578-79, the plaintiff alleged that he had been fired for refusing to participate in an...

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