Idaho, like many states, recognizes a narrow exception to the employment at-will relationship where an employer terminates an employee in violation of public policy. In order to support a claim for wrongful termination in violation of public policy, an employee must provide evidence that he or she was fired for engaging in some sort of protected activity, such as exercising his or her legal rights or refusing to break the law on behalf of the employer. In a recent case, the Idaho Supreme Court rejected an employee’s wrongful discharge claim because the employee failed to provide evidence that she engaged in protected activity. Venable v. Internet Auto Rent & Sales, Inc., ___ P.3d ___, No. 40939 (Idaho June 17, 2014).
Asserting General Public Policy Violation Not Enough
Tina Venable was a fifteen year veteran in the auto sales industry when she was hired by Internet Auto as an Internet Manager. The auto dealer terminated her just a month later. Venable claimed that she was fired after telling the General Sales Manager that the dealership was engaged in various deceptive sales practices and charging illegal fees to consumers. She sued Internet Auto claiming, among other things, that she was wrongfully discharged in violation of public policy. The district court found in favor of Internet Auto on her wrongful discharge claim and Venable appealed.
On appeal, the Idaho Supreme Court analyzed whether Venable offered evidence that she had engaged in a protected activity that would support her public policy violation claim. To make that determination, the Court needed to examine “(1) whether there is a public policy at stake sufficient to create an exception to at-will employment, and (2) whether the employee acted in a manner sufficiently in furtherance of that policy.” Venable failed to provide evidence of either of these.
Although she argued that Internet Auto violated the Idaho Consumer Protection Act and the federal Truth in Lending Act, she failed to specify the exact provisions of either law or regulation that the dealership violated. The Court stated that “a plaintiff must specifically identify the public policy in question and then provide evidence to show a violation of the public policy.” Venable’s broad references to the entire consumer protection law were insufficient for that purpose.
Venable also failed to identify specific actions that she took that were in furtherance of an identified public policy. While claiming that she was terminated for refusing to commit unlawful acts and practices, Venable was unable to identify any specific instances where Internet Auto violated the law or engaged in illegal conduct. She made numerous allegations, such as Internet Auto illegally charged consumers for acquisition fees that were owed by the dealership, sold vehicles in excess of their advertised prices, failed to disclose all material contractual and financial terms to buyers and employed “bait and switch” sales tactics. However, she failed to point to even a single specific deal or customer where illegal conduct occurred. Similarly, she failed to provide any facts related to her own conduct that would show how she refused to engage in unlawful conduct that was requested or required by her employer. By failing to identify even one such instance, Venable was unable to show that she was engaged in a protected activity. The Court affirmed judgment in favor of Internet Auto on Venable’s wrongful discharge claim.
Not All Activities Are Protected
In discussing the public policy exception to at-will employment, the Idaho Supreme Court identified numerous types of employee conduct that has been considered to be protected activities. These include participating in union activities, reporting electrical building code violations and complying with a court issued subpoena. The Court also reiterated that the public policy exception would be applicable if an employee were discharged for filing a worker’s compensation claim, serving on jury duty or refusing to date a supervisor. However, as Venable discovered, not all employment activities fall within the public policy exception, even if they benefit the community.
Prevailing Employer Was Awarded Attorneys Fees
Internet Auto argued that as the prevailing party in this lawsuit, it was entitled to recover its attorneys fees pursuant to the applicable Idaho statute. Under Idaho Code §12-121, a court will award fees if it “determines that the action was brought or pursued frivolously, unreasonably or without foundation.” Because Venable continued to rely on vague allegations of misconduct “without bothering to flesh out the details either of the alleged illegal conduct on the part of Internet Auto or of the specifics of her engagement in protected activity,” despite the district court pointing out her deficiencies, the Court awarded fees to Internet Auto.
Favorable Ruling for Employers
The good news for Idaho employers is that the public policy exception to the at-will employment relationship remains limited and narrowly construed. Discharged employees must be able to articulate the particular public policy at issue, identify specific violations of the public policy by the employer and prove that the employee engaged in explicit conduct that constitutes a protected activity. General allegations of employer wrongdoing will not be sufficient to support a wrongful discharge claim.