The 1877 Master and Servant Rule Lives!

If you wonder why American workers need protection from workplace bullying, consider last week’s decision by a federal appeals court in Chicago regarding a 51-year-old plant  manager who was fired by Sun Chemical Corp. in 2009.

George Widmar, 51, was a plant manager for 16 years who was fired in 2009 by Sun Chemical, denied severance pay and publicly accused of  having “screwed up” the plant. Sun Chemical argued that plant managers must accept responsibility over all aspects of a plant – even those outside the manager’s control.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit in Chicago agreed.

The appeals court did not discount the possibility that everything Widmar claimed had happened to him did in fact happen. Among other things, Widmar said he was blamed for problems stemming from a flawed chemical formula and Sun’s decision to use cheap, faulty materials.  The court ruled in the case of Widmar v. Sun Chemical Corp, No. 13-2313 (November 19, 2014), that none of this mattered.

The court said the law is not concerned about employers or managers who are “unpleasant,” “unfair” or “too hard” on employees. The law is not concerned if an employer/manager has a “nefarious motive,” doesn’t like, or is “wrong” about an employee’s performance. Furthermore, the law doesn’t care if the company creates conditions that make it impossible for a worker to succeed.

All the law cares about, said the appeals court, is whether an employee can prove illegal discrimination.

Paradoxically, of course, it is impossible to prove illegal discrimination if the law doesn’t care that the employer had nefarious motives, was wrong about the employee’s performance and created conditions that made it impossible for the manager to succeed. What’s left? Is it fair to expect an employer to tell an employee outright that it is intent upon violating federal discrimination laws?  Sometimes all a worker can do is point to harassment and unfair policies and expect the law to care.

Many industrialized countries do care when employers engage in unfair and destructive employment practices. They have adopted workplace bullying laws and policies to protect workers.  The European Union in 2000 adopted The Charter of The Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which declares that “every worker has the right to working conditions which respect his or her health, safety and dignity.” Overwhelming research shows that workplace bullying has serious short-term and long-term impact upon the health of targets.  The European Framework Agreement on Harassment and Violence at Work in 2007 states that employers have a duty to protect workers from harassment and violence in the workplace.

America’s employment law is based upon an obscure policy concocted in 1877 by an Albany attorney and treatise writer, Horace Gray Wood. He created the “Master and Servant” rule that  provides when a hiring is indefinite, the burden of proof is on the servant to prove that an indefinite employment term was for one year.  Courts expanded Wood’s theory, which was based upon a scant four court decisions,  into the “employment at will” rule which reigns today and permits an employer to fire an employee without reasonable cause (except when the cause violates the law).  So Widmar legally could be fired without reasonable cause and his mistreatment ignored because the court declared his evidence was insufficient to show illegal discrimination.

Widmar was a senior employee with sufficient resources to hire and attorney and file a lawsuit and an appeal. One can only wonder how Sun Chemical treats lesser employees who are denied access to America’s archaic courts because they can’t afford hefty attorney fees and court costs or navigate a system that is profoundly intolerant of  self-represented litigants.

Why are Americans satisfied with working conditions that other countries find barbaric? Never mind Widmar. Why do the poorest and least powerful workers continually elect politicians who either ignore them once they get into office or actively fight against their interests to advance the goals of multi-national corporations?  And yet, the Master Servant rule lives.

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