In an important decision affecting employers, the Ohio Supreme Court recently decided to abolish common law age discrimination claims. Specifically, in Leininger v. Pioneer Nat'l Latex, 2007-Ohio-4921 (decided Sept. 27, 2007), the Court held that a tort claim for wrongful discharge based on Ohio's public policy against age discrimination does not exist because the statutory remedies for age discrimination provide complete relief.
In order to understand the implications of this decision, it is first necessary to know the history of public policy/wrongful discharge claims. Ohio's employment relations are generally governed by the common law doctrine of employment at will. This doctrine, simply put, allows employers and employees in a pure at-will employment relationship to legally terminate the employment relationship at any time and for any reason. See, Lake Land Emp. Group of Akron, LLC v. Columber, 101 Ohio St.3d 242.
In 1990, the Ohio Supreme Court recognized a public policy exception to the employment-at-will doctrine when it held that “[p]ublic policy warrants an exception to the employment-at-will doctrine when an employee is discharged or disciplined for a reason which is prohibited by statute.” Greeley v. Miami Valley Maintenance Contrs., Inc. (1990), 49 Ohio St.3d 228 at paragraph one of the syllabus. In Greeley, the plaintiff had been fired for a reason that was clearly prohibited by statute, but the statute merely provided for the employer to be fined and did not create the right to civil remedies for the plaintiff.
Later, the public policy exception was expanded to include claims for wrongful discharge based on public policy expressed in sources other than the Revised Code such as the Constitutions of Ohio and the United States, administrative rules and regulations, and the common law.
This week's decision is good for employers because it limits the application of the public policy exception in two ways. First, and most obviously, it abolishes all common law age discrimination claims. This development is particularly consequential because the statute of limitations for the type of age discrimination claim favored by employee/plaintiffs is quite short—only six months—while the statute of limitations for a common law cause of action is four years. (Another section of the Ohio Civil Rights Act gives employees six years within which to file a claim, but that section limits the types of damages an employee may recover.) Employees who do not quickly assert their allegations of age discrimination will now no longer have a “fall-back” cause of action.
Second, and perhaps more important, the Leininger decision offers a new avenue for employers to fight other common law claims brought under the public policy exception. In reaching its decision, the Ohio Supreme Court concluded that “it is unnecessary to recognize a common law claim when remedy provisions are an essential part of the statutes upon which the plaintiff depends for the public policy claim and when those remedies adequately protect society's interest by discouraging the wrongful conduct.” Leininger, at ¶ 27. Given the Court's position in this regard, it is reasonable to assume that common law torts based upon gender and race discrimination will cease to exist in the very near future.