The California Court of Appeal has determined that a wrongful discharge claim cannot be based upon an alleged violation of a municipal ordinance. Bruni v. The Edward Thomas Hospitality Corporation.

The California Supreme Court has previously ruled that wrongful termination claims must be based upon a violation of a “fundamental public policy.” In the years since that decision, plaintiffs’ lawyers have asserted a wide variety of wrongful discharge, constructive discharge, and failure to hire claims based on a broad array of federal, state and local statutes, constitutional provisions, regulations and ordinances. However, it had been an open question as to whether such a claim could be based upon the employer’s alleged violation of a local ordinance as distinguished from a state statute. Bruni resolved that question in favor of the employer.

In Bruni, a restaurant server sued his former employer (a hotel), alleging: (1) violation of a Santa Monica municipal recall ordinance; and (2) a derivative wrongful failure to rehire claim based on an alleged public policy expressed in the local ordinance. The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s order sustaining the hotel’s demurrer (motion to dismiss) on both causes of action. As to the server’s claim under the local ordinance, the Court held that the employee’s earlier period of employment that ended with his voluntary resignation did not count toward the six-month minimum period of employment required to state a viable cause of action under the Santa Monica ordinance.

More significantly, the Court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the server’s wrongful failure to rehire claim because “a municipal ordinance cannot serve as the predicate for a [wrongful termination] tort claim.” The Court held that these claims “must be predicated on a fundamental public policy that is expressed in a constitutional or statutory provision … as opposed to a public policy that finds expression in a municipal ordinance.”

While Bruni concerned a local recall ordinance enacted in response to the economic downturn following 9/11, its potential impact is far broader. Specifically, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, local jurisdictions up and down the state have enacted dozens – if not hundreds – of new ordinances. Bruni puts the kibosh on a potential new wave of frivolous wrongful discharge suits based on these local legislative enactments.