In Mercado v. Manny’s T.V. & Appliance, Inc., an appliance installer, who told his employer shortly before he was terminated that he did not want to continue installing appliances illegally, sued the former employer for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy. The Appeals Court held that the circumstances of the employee’s termination could provide grounds for a public policy claim.

Angel Mercado installed kitchen appliances as an employee of Manny’s T.V. & Appliance. He did not have a plumber’s or electrician’s license, even though at least one of those licenses is required to install kitchen appliances. He also was not familiar with the Massachusetts codes for plumbing or electrical work. Mercado’s installations allegedly caused several gas leaks, at least one of which resulted in an injury.

A state inspector discovered that Mercado was installing appliances without a license and ordered him off the job. Mercado informed his service manager, and the service manager allegedly instructed him to continue his installations while avoiding the inspector in the future. Mercado responded that he did not believe that he should install appliances anymore, but he followed instructions and returned to work. A month later, Manny’s terminated Mercado’s employment, ostensibly for cursing at his supervisor.

Mercado filed suit, alleging wrongful discharge in violation of public policy, among other claims. The matter proceeded to trial, and the Superior Court granted Manny’s motion for a directed verdict on the grounds that Mercado failed to present sufficient evidence that he was required to continue performing illegal appliance installations. Mercado appealed the Superior Court’s judgment.

The Appeals Court first distinguished between a termination for protesting an internal policy and a termination for protesting a matter of public policy. The Court stated that the former could not be grounds for a wrongful discharge claim, even if the employee’s actions were “socially desirable.”

The Court further held that installing appliances without a license was a matter of public policy rather than merely an internal matter. It found that the intent behind the plumbing and electrical licensure requirements is to protect public safety. The fact that Mercado caused several dangerous gas leaks underscored the risks to the public presented by illegal appliance installations. The Court viewed the circumstances of this case akin to those of other cases in which courts have allowed a public policy exception to the rule of at-will employment. The Court therefore overturned the Superior Court, ruling that the jury could decide whether Mercado’s opposition to the unlawful installation of appliances was a factor in his termination.

While wrongful discharge in violation of public policy is an historically narrow cause of action, this case shows that it may be a viable claim when employees are terminated for opposing unlawful employer decisions that threaten public safety. At the same time, the case shows that the claim apparently does not extend to employee opposition to purely internal policies, even when the opposition is “socially desirable.”