Monday, September 14, 2015

Court of Appeals Holds that Self-Defense is Not an Exception from Employment At Will

Court of Appeals Holds that Self-Defense is Not an Exception from
Employment At Will

      Under Kentucky law, absent a contract to the contrary, the employer/employee relationship is “at will”; either party may terminate the agreement any time. As characterized by one court, the relationship may be terminated “for a good cause, for no cause, or for a cause that some might view as morally indefensible.” Wymer v. J. H. Properties, Inc., 50 S.W.3d 195, 198 (Ky. 2001).  There are, however, a few narrow exceptions to this rule, typically to the effect that an employee may not be terminated for engaging in certain protected activities such as filing a claim for worker’s compensation or engaging in union organizing activities.
      In this case, the Court of Appeals considered, and rejected, the suggestion that an employee's exercise of the admitted right of self-defense does not constitute an exception to the rule of employment at will. Smith v Norton Healthcare, Inc., No. 2014-CA-000352-MR (Ky. App. Sept. 11, 2015).
      Smith was an employee of Norton Healthcare where he worked as an environmental services supervisor. On May 23, 2012, when dropped off to work near the Norton facility, he was attacked by a hotdog vendor who both insulted and struck him on the face. As reported by the Court of Appeals, “After Smith took up a defensive posture, he became entangled with the vendor but never hit him. Norton security officers broke up the altercation and reported the incident to the Norton.” A week later, on May 30, Norton terminated Smith, citing a violation of its workplace violence policy. Smith claimed wrongful termination on the basis that it violated Kentucky's public policy of the right of self-defense as set forth in both the Kentucky Constitution § 1 and KRS § 503.050(1).
      Still, the court required that the right at issue have “an employment related nexus”, citing Grzyb v Evans, 700 S.W.2d 399, 402 (Ky. 1985). As formulated by the court there “may not be a sufficient nexus if the statute was not designed to protect the employee from the specified harm that resulted.” The court held that (i) Ky. Const. § 1 does not apply to private, as contrasted with state, actors and (ii) the right of self-defense set forth in KRS § 503.050(1) was not designed or intended to relate to termination of an employment relationship.
      For that reason, the trial court's dismissal of Smith's complaint for failure to state a cause of action (CR 12.02(f)) was affirmed.

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