Minnesota Ct Enshrines Employment-at-Will Rule

Associate Justice Davis StrasThe Minnesota Supreme Court has upheld the dismissal of a worker who was fired by her employer because she applied for unemployment compensation during a period in which the company failed to assign her work.

This would seem to be incongruous, given that the state of Minnesota has granted workers the right to file for unemployment compensation benefits.  However,in a harsh and divided decision. Minnesota’s Supreme Court said the state’s “employment at will” rule trumps a workers right to be free from wrongful discharge for having invoked her right to apply for state unemployment benefits.

The century old  “employment at will” rule is an arcane theory based upon a questionable premise – that employers and employees have equal bargaining power. Under this theory, employers can fire employees “for any reason or no reason” providing it is not an illegal reason, and an employee can quit for no reason.  Of course, in reality, the see-saw tilts heavily toward an employer, especially in an economy where there are three applicants for every job vacancy.

To put this in perspective, the United States is one of only a handful of countries where employment is predominantly at-will.  Most countries throughout the world allow employers to dismiss employees only for cause. Only Montana in the U.S. has rejected the “at-will” doctrine.

Should we ‘term’ her?

Jane Kay Dukowitz  was hired as a security officer in 2005 by Hannon Security Services to work a night shift.  She learned in November 2008 that a temporary daytime position was open for the holiday season, applied and got the position.  She was subsequently informed the position would end on Dec. 31, 2008  and that Hannon had  no work for Dukowitz in the ensuing months.

Dukowitz said she told her supervisor that she would need to apply for unemployment benefits “to make ends meet.” Her supervisor allegedly turned to another supervisor and asked, “should we term her?”— terminate her employment. Dukowitz said she begged them not to fire her and asked to be placed on a “floating shift” so that she could work when shifts became available.

Dukowitz was fired on March 13, 2009 after having applied for unemployment benefits.  Hannon cited her “poor work,”  “unwillingness to work weekends or nights” and the poor local economy. Dukowitz contends that she received positive performance reviews and never refused to work weekends or nights.

The dispute boiled down to the scope of the public-policy exception to Minnesota’s employment-at-will rule. Dukowitz argued that legal precedent established  a cause of action for wrongful discharge if an employee can identify a clear mandate of public policy that the employer violated when it discharged the employee.

The majority ruled that it is up to Minnesota’s legislature to “balance the competing interests of employers, employees, and the public to determine whether, and when, an employer violates the public policy of the state by discharging an employee.”  The majority noted that under  Minn. Stat. § 268.192, subd. 1 (2012) it is already a misdemeanor for an employer interfere with an employee’s application for unemployment benefits.

The majority also ordered Dukowitz to pay Hannon $1,361.35 in costs and fees, despite Dukowitz’ objection on the grounds of indigency.

Justice Wilhemina Wright, joined by Justice Alan Page, filed a dissent  in which they argued that “[a] common-law wrongful-discharge claim . . . would advance [Minnesota’s] public policy by fostering additional deterrence” of employers who decline to follow the requirements of Minnesota’s unemployment-compensation.”  She also argued that the legislature’s role in policy-making is “not exclusive” and the court has the power to both recognize and abolish common law doctrines. Justice Wright also noted most states  have expanded the public-policy exception to the employment-at-will rule to include both refusals to violate the law and reports of violations of law.

The majority’s decision in   Dukowitz v. Hannon  Security Services, No. A11-1481 (Minn. Jan. 2, 2014), was written by Associate Justice David R. Stras.

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