The Virginia Supreme Court has ruled that an employee cannot bring a wrongful discharge claim after being fired for taking out a restraining order against a threatening coworker. This ruling demonstrates the strict limitations on a claim of public policy wrongful discharge in Virginia.
The employee, Noemie S. Francis, was a full-time administrative assistant at the National Accrediting Commission of Career Arts & Sciences, Inc. (NACCAS). Per her complaint, on January 23, 2015, while at work, Peri Blow (Blow), another NACCAS employee, yelled obscenities at her, called her derogatory names, and threatened her, saying “I am going to f— you up, and hurt you.” Francis claimed that about a dozen NACCAS employees witnessed this event, and two of them tried to pull Blow away from her, but Blow “continued to come back to [Francis] with additional threats and vituperations.”
Management spoke with Francis, Blow, and an employee witness about the incident, but never investigated it or took disciplinary action. Instead, NACCAS instructed them to observe NACCAS values and improve their behavior in the future. Francis emailed her supervisor and the HR Director to express her concerns that the company failed to address her safety and that she was not comfortable working closely with someone who threatened her physical wellbeing.
On January 30, Francis filed an ex parte petition for a preliminary protective order (PPO) against Blow in the General District Court of Prince William County. The court granted the PPO on the same date, ordering Blow not to commit any further “acts of violence, force, or threat” against Francis, and prohibiting all contact except “lawful conduct” with Francis.
On Thursday, February 5, 2015, a police officer served the PPO on Blow at the NACCAS office, in the presence of the HR Director. The following Monday, February 9, NACCAS terminated Francis effective immediately because she “did not fit the vision of the organization.”
Francis filed a lawsuit in Alexandria Circuit Court against NACCAS, claiming that it wrongfully fired her in violation of Virginia public policy in support of protecting the safety of endangered parties. The court dismissed the lawsuit, and Francis appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court.
The Virginia Supreme Court found that NACCAS’s firing did not itself violate Francis’ right to safety and protection that Virginia law recognizes in its Protective Order Statutes. It also found that there was no public policy in the Protective Order Statutes protecting the exercise of the right to seek a protective order from infringement by third parties. Thus, Virginia’s public policy did not protect Francis from being fired after she obtained a protective order.
This ruling shows not only the limited protection of at-will employees from discharge in Virginia, but also the impact of employer reluctance to take sides in employee disputes. An employer could be sued if an employee is harmed in the workplace due to dangerous conditions, but can also be sued if it fires a person who did not instigate a dispute. Because of the high danger of litigation, employers are often reluctant to act until forced to do so by witnessing disfavored conduct. This may mean that an employee who takes action that forces employer involvement in a dispute endangers her own job.