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Fitzgerald v. Salsbury Chem., Inc. - 613 N.W.2d 275 (Iowa 2000)

Rule:

Three exceptions to the at-will employment doctrine have surfaced to add employee protections to the employer/employee relationship. Generally, these exceptions fall into three categories: (1) discharges in violation of public policy, (2) discharges in violation of employee handbooks which constitute a unilateral contract, and (3) discharges in violation of a covenant of good faith and fair dealing

Facts:

Plaintiff Tom Fitzgerald filed this wrongful discharge action against his employer, defendant Salsbury Chemical Co. He alleged his termination violated a public policy of Iowa to protect workers who oppose the unlawful termination of a co-worker. Additionally, he claimed he was terminated because he intended to provide testimony in the co-worker's future wrongful termination lawsuit that would be unfavorable to Salsbury and the company wanted to discredit his potential testimony as a disgruntled former employee. Fitzgerald claims Salsbury's motivation to terminate him violated the public policy of this state to provide truthful testimony in court proceedings. The District Court for Floyd County (Iowa) granted summary judgment in favor of Salsbury.

Issue:

Did the former employee present a prima facie cause of action for wrongful termination in violation of public policy?

Answer:

Yes

Conclusion:

The appellate court reversed and remanded, holding that when plaintiff employee warned that litigation could have resulted and defendant Salsbury had to decide which side he supported, it placed Fitzgeralds support for the fired employee in the context of litigation and transformed the conversation into choosing sides in a lawsuit. Thus, those facts permitted a reasonable inference to be drawn that appellant Fitzgerald, prior to discharge, intended to testify in threatened future litigation against his employer. Appellee Salsbury should have been aware that attempts to interfere with the process of obtaining truthful testimony, whether through intimidation or retaliation, violated this public policy. The action in this case is based in part upon an internal complaint by the employee, but is enough to withstand summary judgment because the context of the internal complaint justifies an inference of an intent to testify against the employer which may have caused the employer to dismiss the employee. Because there were genuine issues of material fact, summary judgment was improperly granted.

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