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Absent legislation, the judiciary must define the cause of action in case-by-case determinations. An employer's right to discharge an employee at will carries a correlative duty not to discharge an employee who declines to perform an act that would require a violation of a clear mandate of public policy. However, unless an employee at will identifies a specific expression of public policy, he may be discharged with or without cause.
Plaintiff Pierce, a medical doctor, was employed by a drug manufacturer, Defendant Ortho Pharmaceutial Corporation. Dr. Pierce opposed the development of a drug containing saccharin because, in her professional opinion, saccharin's safety was medically debatable. Ortho removed Dr. Pierce from her work on the drug project, but told her that she could choose other projects. Instead, Dr. Pierce tendered her resignation, which Ortho accepted. Plaintiff sued for damages for the termination of her employment. The trial court rejected Defendant's argument that Plaintiff's suit was barred because she had resigned. There was a fact question of whether her resignation was coerced. The trial court, however, granted Defendant's motion for summary judgment because Plaintiff was an employee at will and could be terminated at any time. The intermediary appellate court reversed and remanded. Defendant Ortho sought further review.
Did an employee at will have a cause of action against her corporate employer to recover damages for the termination of her employment following her refusal to continue a project she viewed as medically unethical?
The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed the appellate court's decision and remanded the cause to the trial court for entry of judgment in favor of Defendant. The Supreme Court noted that Plaintiff did not allege that saccharin was dangerous, but that it was controversial. Also, pPaintiff's research did not violate medical ethics or any statute. According to the Court, there was no clear mandate of public policy that prevented Plaintiff from working on the drug, and thus Defendant was entitled to summary judgment.