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Washington Supreme Court Finds Employee Failed to Assert Valid Claim for Wrongful Discharge in Violation of Public Policy

Last month, in Martin v. Gonzaga University, 425 P.3d 827 (September 13, 2018), the Washington Supreme Court shed further light on the proper scope of claims for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy and how such claims should be analyzed.

David Martin was an assistant director at Gonzaga University’s student fitness center. Martin sued Gonzaga alleging he was discharged in violation of public policy for raising concerns about injuries resulting from Gonzaga’s failure to install padding on the walls of the fitness center’s basketball courts.  Gonzaga responded that Martin’s discharge resulted from his ongoing job performance and insubordination issues, had nothing to do with his stated safety concerns, and such concerns did not present a valid public policy claim in any event.

The trial court dismissed Martin’s claim on summary judgment, and the Court of Appeals affirmed, finding Martin’s performance and insubordination issues were an overriding justification for his discharge.

The Supreme Court affirmed the ruling, but on different grounds. The Court of Appeals had applied the so-called Perritt test, which requires a plaintiff alleging a public-policy discharge to prove four elements: (1) the existence of a clear public policy, (2) discouraging the plaintiff’s public-policy-linked conduct would jeopardize the public policy, (3) the policy-linked conduct motivated the employer’s discharge decision, and (4) the employer cannot offer an overriding justification for discharge.  The Supreme Court, pointing to its 2015 decisions in two cases that referenced this same issue, explained that the Perritt test should only be used when a public policy claim does not fall within any of four established categories of claims where employees are fired for (1) refusing to commit an illegal act; (2) performing a public duty (e.g., jury duty); (3) exercising a legal right or privilege (e.g., filing a workers’ compensation claim); and (4) reporting employer misconduct – i.e., whistle-blowing.

Martin’s claim fell within the fourth category because he alleged he was fired in retaliation for voicing safety concerns about the need for padding in the basketball courts. As such, using the correct standard, the Supreme Court explained, he first needed to show that his discharge may have been motivated by reasons that contravene a clear mandate of public policy.  The Court held that he failed to meet this burden because his “mere opinion that wall padding should be installed does not constitute a clear mandate of public policy.”  Regardless, the Court concluded, there was “ample evidence” Gonzaga had legitimate reasons for his dismissal -- inadequate job performance and insubordination -- and Martin could not establish that despite these reasons his whistle-blowing was a significant factor in his termination.

In recent years the Supreme Court has broadened the scope of what constitutes a proper wrongful discharge in violation of public policy claim. In this case, the Court narrowed the scope somewhat based on the facts presented and clarified how courts should analyze such claims.

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