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Beware new grounds for wrongful-firing suits: Termination in violation of public policy

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,Human Resources

Employees and their lawyers are always looking for new reasons to sue. Lately, there’s been an in­­crease in efforts to cast terminations as public-policy violations.

Recent case: Angela VanBuren worked as a registered nurse and was married. Within days of starting her job, her supervisor—a physician who was also married—began pro­positioning her for a sexual re­lationship. He allegedly grabbed her and tried to kiss her on several occasions.

Finally, the doctor asked her to leave her husband and become his lover. When she refused, he fired her.

VanBuren sued under the usual laws, alleging sexual harassment.

But she also added a claim she had been discharged in violation of public policy. She said that because her state had a law on the books that criminalized adultery, she had been fired for refusing to engage in a criminal act.

The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed she had a case for discharge in violation of public policy. (Van­Buren v. Grubb, et al., No. 10-2100, 4th Cir., 2012)

Final note: This was a Virginia case and the court relied on Virginia criminal laws. It remains unclear whether firing someone for refusing to engage in adultery in North Carolina is grounds for a lawsuit. However, it is clear that the 4th Circuit, which includes North Caro­lina, is open to the idea of new reasons for lawsuits.

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