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In what will likely be significant decision in the area of employment law, the Missouri Court of Appeals recently broadened the public policy exception to Missouri’s at-will employment doctrine.

In Delaney v. Signature Health Care Foundation, the plaintiff learned that her brother was diagnosed with kidney failure shortly after the commencement of her employment.  The plaintiff’s brother required a kidney transplant to survive.  After learning that she was an appropriate donor, the plaintiff volunteered to donate a kidney to her brother.  The plaintiff thereafter informed her employer that she would be out of work for approximately four weeks after the surgery, at which point the employer informed her that it could not hold her position open for four weeks.  The employer then discharged the plaintiff, who subsequently brought suit for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy.

Upon commencement of the lawsuit, the employer filed a motion to dismiss, which the trial court granted on the basis that the plaintiff failed to establish a clear mandate of public policy required for the public policy exception to kick in.  On appeal, the Missouri Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s decision.

Missouri courts have recognized a public policy exception to the State’s at-will employment doctrine for quite some time.  Prior Missouri decisions have held that the public policy exception establishes a cause of action for at-will employees who have been discharged in violation of a clear mandate of public policy reflected in the letter and purpose of a constitutional, statutory, or regulatory provision or scheme, in the judicial decisions of state and federal courts, in the constant practice of government officials, and, in certain instances, in professional codes of ethics.

The Missouri Supreme Court first explicitly recognized the public policy exception in Fleshner v. Pepose Vision Institute, P.C., 304 S.W.3d 81, 92 (Mo. banc 2010).  In that case, the Court recognized that an employee has a cause of action when he or she has been discharged for (1) refusing to perform an illegal act or an act contrary to a strong mandate of public policy, or (2) reporting the employer or fellow employees to superiors or third parties for their violations of law or public policy.  Importantly, while only recognizing these two grounds, the Fleshner decision did not overrule prior case law finding that the public policy exception applies to employees who have been discharged for acting in a manner public policy would encourage.

Subsequent Missouri appellate decisions have adopted this third category as part of the public policy exception, but at least one court has suggested that it is limited in scope—i.e., jury duty, seeking public office, asserting a right to collective bargaining, or joining a union.  However, in the recent Delaney decision, the Missouri Court of Appeals made it clear that the third category applies to all employees.  Specifically, the Delaney court stated that the public policy exception “continues to apply to [all] employees who were discharged for acting in a manner public policy would encourage.”

Moreover, the Missouri Court of Appeals in Delaney suggested that in determining whether an employee’s conduct was of the type public policy encourages, courts should take into account whether a collection of Missouri statutes reflects a clear mandate of public policy in Missouri.  Indeed, in Delaney, the plaintiff’s petition cited Sections 105.266, 194.302, 301.020 and 301.3125, RSMo., for statutory authority that the plaintiff claimed reflected a public policy encouraging organ donation.  After reviewing the statutory provisions, the court determined that collectively, the statutes clearly establish that Missouri’s public policy encourages organ donation.  As such, the court held that the trial court erred in granting the employer’s motion to dismiss.

The decision in Delaney, if upheld, will likely make it significantly easier for employees to bring wrongful termination claims under the public policy exception to the at-will doctrine.  And while Delaney only involved statutory provisions, Missouri courts will likely extend the decision to apply equally to regulatory provisions and judicial decisions.  If so, employees will likely be allowed to pool together statutory and regulatory provisions, as well as judicial decisions, to establish that Missouri encourages the type of conduct for which the employee was terminated.  Such a broad application of the public policy exception will make no doubt make motions to dismiss more difficult and run up costs for employers.