Ohio Court Declines to Expand Public Policy Exception to Employment at Will

Employees in Ohio are generally employed at the will of their employer, unless they have a contract that states otherwise. But the Ohio Supreme Court has recognized certain narrow exceptions to the Employment-at-Will Doctrine, including a "public policy claim."

For example, an employer may not fire an employee because he or she complains about workplace health and safety matters, Kulch v. Structural Fibers, 78 Ohio St.3d 134, 162 (1997); Pytlinksi v. Brocar Prods., 94 Ohio St.3d 77, 80-81 (2002); the employee has a court-ordered child support wage assignment, Greeley v. Miami Valley Maint. Contractors, 49 Ohio St.3d 228, 234-34 (1990); or the employee complains about sexual harassment/discrimination, Collins v. Rizkana, 73 Ohio St.3d 65, 74 (1995). Those statements of policy can be based on Ohio or federal laws and regulations, but an employee seeking to assert a wrongful discharge claim grounded in public policy must establish that the law or regulation reflects the public policy of Ohio.

In Davis v. Butler County Board of County Commissioners, the former employee alleged he was terminated for ensuring that the County complied with federal regulations governing county airports. Before addressing the truth of those allegations, the court dismissed the lawsuit at the pleadings stage, because Davis failed to state a claim for wrongful discharge in any event. The federal regulation on which he relied (impacting airports that are the recipients of federal grant funding) does not express an Ohio-specific public policy. Citing previous federal decisions reaching the same conclusion, the court added:

Accepting an argument that a clear public policy is established because an administrative regulation covers the subject matter at issue would expand the public policy claim to all statutory and administrative enactments. Under that view, the exception would swallow the rule.

Davis v. Butler Cty. Bd. of Cty. Commr’s., Butler C.P. No. 2018 04 0887 (Dec. 4, 2018 J. Entry, at p. 6) (quoting Hale v. Mercy Health Partners, 20 F. Supp. 2d 620, 639 (S.D. Ohio 2014)).

Unless preempted by federal law, each state has the right to establish laws reflecting its own public policies. Sometimes a federal regulation, such as those implementing workplace safety laws, will align with Ohio policy, and sometimes—as in this case—it will not. When it does not, an employee’s asserted public policy wrongful discharge claim will fail.

Image by Jeff Kubina, CC BY-SA 2.0.