Missouri is an “at-will” employment state, meaning employers generally have the right to terminate employees for any reason or no reason at all, with or without cause. However, the public policy exception to the at-will doctrine provides that an employer may be liable for damages if the employer terminates an at-will employee (1) for refusing to violate the law or any well-established and clear mandate of public policy as expressed in the constitution, statutes, regulations promulgated pursuant to statute, or rules created by a governmental body, or (2) for reporting wrongdoing or violations of law to superiors or public authorities. The public policy exception is commonly referred to as the “whistleblower” doctrine.
In Dooms v. First Home Savings Bank, et al., the plaintiff sued her former employer, First Home Savings Bank (“Bank“), for damages stemming from the Bank’s wrongful discharge of the plaintiff in violation of public policy. Specifically, the plaintiff argued that the Bank’s treatment of her after she suffered a work-related injury demonstrated that the Bank wanted to fire her even though it had no legitimate reason for doing so, and that the Bank used the plaintiff’s physical condition as a means of mistreating her because of her “whistleblowing.” At trial, the jury found in favor of the plaintiff and awarded her $182,000.00 in compensatory damages and $235,000.00 in punitive damages. The trial court entered judgment consistent with the jury’s verdicts. On appeal, the Bank challenged the punitive damages award, arguing, among other things, that the trial court erred in submitting punitive damages to the jury because there was no clear and convincing evidence of evil motive or reckless indifference on the part of the Bank.
The facts presented on appeal were as follows. The plaintiff was employed by the Bank as a facilities manager. In 2005, the plaintiff discovered that the Bank’s president shredded documents relating to a loan that was under investigation by the Office of Thrift Supervision (“OTS”) for violation of certain federal banking regulations. The plaintiff reported her concerns to a member of the Banks’ Board of Directors, and the president resigned a few weeks later.
The Bank thereafter hired a new president, who subsequently replaced the plaintiff’s immediate supervisor. Knowing that the plaintiff had previously reported wrongdoing, the new Bank president requested that the plaintiff’s new supervisor keep a timeline on her and monitor her e-mail account. No such timeline was kept on any other employees. In July 2006, during an investigation by the OTS, the plaintiff refused to corroborate false information her supervisor gave to the OTS. After the plaintiff’s refusal, her job duties were changed significantly. The plaintiff thereafter wrote a letter to the Bank’s Board of Directors reporting the situation, at which point her supervisor changed the Bank’s locks and refused to give the plaintiff a key.
The plaintiff subsequently had surgery to treat an injury she suffered when she fell on the job while carrying a box. The plaintiff made a workers’ compensation claim to cover the surgery. A representative of the Bank asked about firing the plaintiff while that claim was pending even though the representative knew of no legitimate reason to fire the plaintiff. The plaintiff was ultimately fired in April 2007, just four months after the OTS required the Bank to execute a Memorandum of Understanding to addressed the problems discovered during the OTS’s July 2006 examination of the Bank.
Based upon the foregoing facts, the Missouri Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision, holding that the plaintiff submitted “substantial evidence from which a reasonable juror could conclude that Defendants intentionally and wrongfully fired Plaintiff in reckless disregard for her rights and interests.” In its decision, the court reiterated Missouri’s long-standing principle that “when reviewing whether a plaintiff has made a submissible case for punitive damages, we look at the evidence in the light most favorable to submission, while disregarding all evidence and inferences which are adverse thereto.”