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Rackley v. Fairview Care Ctrs., Inc. - 2001 UT 32, 23 P.3d 1022 (Sup.Ct.)

Rule:

A public policy exception to the employment at-will doctrine is "substantial" if it is of overreaching importance to the public, as opposed to the parties only. The appellate court must inquire whether the discharge is against public policy and affects a duty which inures to the benefit of the public at large rather than to a particular employer or employee. Statutes that simply regulate conduct between private individuals or impose requirements whose fulfillment does not implicate fundamental public policy concerns are not sufficient to require an exception to the at-will presumption. First, one must ask whether the policy in question is one of overarching importance to the public, as opposed to the parties only. Second, one must inquire whether the public interest is so strong and the policy so clear and weighty that the appellate court should place the policy beyond the reach of contract, thereby constituting a bar to discharge that parties cannot modify, even when freely willing and of equal bargaining power.

Facts:

On November 1, 1993, plaintiff Cathleen L. Rackley began working as an at-will employee for defendant Fairview Care Centers, Inc., as the administrator of a nursing home known as Fairview West. Sometime in February 1994, Karleen Merkley, the manager responsible for resident funds at Fairview West, informed most of the members of the staff that a check for $720 from the Veteran's Administration was expected to arrive for resident Ms. Mellen, but that Ms. Mellen was not to be notified it came. Plaintiff was not informed of that prohibition. Rackley informed Ms. Mellen of the check’s arrival, and of the fact that the same was picked up and deposited by Ms. Mellen’s daughter-in-law, Sharon. Subsequently, plaintiff was terminated over the incident.

Plaintiff then filed the present action, claiming she was wrongfully discharged in violation of public policy. After a bench trial, the court held that a clear and substantial public policy of notifying care facility residents of the arrival of their funds had been implicated and that notifying Ms. Mellen and contacting Sharon were actions furthering such policy. On appeal, the court of appeals reversed the trial court's judgment, holding that notifying care facility residents of the arrival of their personal funds was not required by any clear and substantial public policy, and therefore, terminating plaintiff was within Fairview's discretion under the employment-at-will doctrine.

Issue:

Was the nursing home administrator's termination within an employer's discretion?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The Utah Supreme Court upheld the decision of the appellate court, holding that while administrative regulations expressly stated that residents had the right to manage their own funds, case law did not allow for administrative regulations alone to constitute expressions of clear public policy; thus, Fairview did not violate a clear public policy in discharging plaintiff.

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