West Virginia is an “at will” employment state, where an employer may normally fire its employees with or without cause, but an exception to that rule is when the termination would violate a principle of public policy. The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals held in Feliciano v. 7-Eleven, Inc. that a convenience store did not have the right to fire a retail clerk for grabbing a gun out of the hands of a would-be robber in violation of a company policy prohibiting such interference. The court recognized the right of self-defense in response to lethal imminent danger as a public policy exception to the at-will employment doctrine and permitted the employee to sue for wrongful discharge. It also allowed the employer to rebut the claim by proving a plausible and legitimate business reason for firing him.
However, the Supreme Court recently put limits on the self-defense exception. In Newton v. Morgantown Machine & Hydraulics of W. Va., Inc., truck dispatcher Timothy Newton was fired after an altercation with a truck driver. In suing for wrongful discharge, Newton alleged that he used only the minimum force necessary to defend himself from assault. The circuit court dismissed the complaint and the Supreme Court agreed. It noted that, while West Virginia has liberal standards for pleading a cause of action, a plaintiff must “plead all of the essential elements of his or her claim” and may not get away with “a carelessly drafted or baseless pleading.” The right of self-defense applies in “only the most dangerous of circumstances,” the court said, finding that Newton’s complaint made only conclusory allegations of danger insufficient to withstand dismissal.
The lessons to take from the Newton decision are two-fold. First, if you are an employer, you should not assume that you may fire your employees at will in every case. A wrongful discharge may result in a costly verdict in favor of the plaintiff. You need an employment lawyer with the experience and up-to-date knowledge of the law to analyze the circumstances and advise you whether they legally justify the firing.
Second, if you are a terminated employee seeking to bring a wrongful discharge claim, you need an attorney who will analyze carefully your right to sue and plead your case clearly enough to withstand a motion to dismiss.
At Pullin, Fowler, Flanagan, Brown & Poe, PLLC, our knowledgeable attorneys provide employees, businesses and government agencies throughout West Virginia with effective representation in employment litigation, whether they are the plaintiff or defendant. For more information, call us at 304-344-0100 or contact us online.