Yes – a federal court in Maryland recently rejected the argument that termination of an employee for punching an aggressive shoplifter violates public policy.
In Altschuld v. CVS Caremark Corp., the employee worked at a drug store and, in the course of his duties, confronted a suspected shoplifter. No. WDQ-13-3680 (D. Md., July 10, 2014). The shoplifter became aggressive and belligerent. He shouted, cursed, and moved towards the employee in an aggressive manner. Reasonably fearing for his safety, the employee punched the shoplifter. After the shoplifter was arrested, the police determined that the employee acted in self-defense and did not charge the employee with any crimes. The employer then fired the employee for using force against the shoplifter, and the employee sued for wrongful discharge, arguing that his termination violated a clear mandate of public policy.
On the employer’s motion to dismiss, the court rejected the argument that termination for punching a shoplifter violated a clear mandate of public policy. The court explained that the self-defense statute that the employee cited as the basis for the alleged policy “merely immunizes a user of force from liability in certain cases – it does not mandate that use of force.” The court further explained that, for purposes of the wrongful discharge claim, it did not matter whether the employee’s actions were “fair, justified, sensible, reasonable, or appropriate.” Instead, the only consideration was whether the termination was wrongful because it violated a clear mandate of public policy. Based on this reasoning, the court held that the employee’s claim failed as a matter of law.
Takeaway: Employers have wide latitude in discharging at-will employees and can generally terminate an employee for any reason that it is not unlawful. The Altschuld case shows that an employer can terminate an at-will employee even for engaging in lawful behavior, such as self-defense.