Like many states, North Carolina recognizes a limited exception to its employment at-will doctrine. In certain circumstances, terminated employees can sue for wrongful discharge if the termination violated a recognized state public policy. Last month, a North Carolina federal district judge refused to extend this wrongful discharge exception to a situation where employees quit based on the alleged conduct.
In Baldwin v. Tradesman Int'l, Inc., the plaintiffs were two male construction workers who alleged that their male supervisor sexually harassed them. They quit claiming that their complaints to management were not addressed. Among other claims, the plaintiffs alleged wrongful discharge based on North Carolina public policy protecting employees against workplace sexual harassment.
The Eastern District Court dismissed the claim on summary judgment. It concluded that the North Carolina wrongful discharge tort does not encompass situations where the employee quits based on intolerable working conditions. The employee must actually be fired to bring this claim. North Carolina state courts have not conclusively addressed this issue, and the federal court relied on other federal decisions in reaching this determination.
This decision does not bind North Carolina state courts addressing the same legal issue. However, it provides employers with a strong argument with regard to constructive discharge claims. While plaintiffs claiming constructive discharge can pursue actions under Title VII and other personal injury grounds, they may not be able to include a wrongful discharge claim as well.