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Virginia Law Regarding Wrongful Termination

In VanBuren v. Grubb, the plaintiff, Angela VanBuren, claims that her supervisor, Stephen Grubb, sexually harassed her. VanBuren alleges that she rejected Grubb’s repeated advances, which included inappropriate comments, touching, groping and kissing. When Grubb asked VanBuren whether she planned to stay with her husband and she answered affirmatively, he fired her. He provided no explanation for the termination, and offered severance pay in exchange for her remaining silent about the sexual harassment.

In 2010, the plaintiff filed suit for gender discrimination and wrongful discharge. As part of the wrongful discharge claim, she argued that she was fired for refusing to engage in criminal conduct, specifically adultery and open and gross lewdness and lasciviousness. As such, VanBuren alleged that the discharge violated public policy.

The Federal District Court dismissed her claims against Grubb, holding that the claims brought by the plaintiff were only appropriate against an employer, not a supervisor. VanBuren appealed to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, which decided to certify this issue to the Virginia Supreme Court. There are some important points regarding this decision:

  • The Court explains that while Virginia strongly adheres to the employment-at-will doctrine, this rule is not absolute. Normally any party can terminate the contract with reasonable notice.
  • The Court emphasizes that the exceptions to the employee-at-will rule are narrow, since termination of an employee in violation of the policy underlying any one [statute] does not automatically give rise to a common law cause of action for wrongful discharge.
  • The Court found that VanBuren’s claim for wrongful discharge falls under a recognized exception to the employee-at-will doctrine in which an employee is discharged for refusing to commit a crime.
  • Most important, the Virginia Supreme Court answered the question of whether this extends to an individual who was not the plaintiff’s employer. The Court held that Virginia recognizes a common law tort claim of wrongful discharge in violation of established public policy against an individual who was not the plaintiff’s actual employer but who was the actor in violation of public policy and who participated in the wrongful firing of the plaintiff, such as a supervisor or manager. Thus, the wrongful discharge claim against plaintiff’s supervisor was cognizable and could go forward.

If you have any questions about wrongful termination, contact an experienced labor and employment attorney in Washington, D.C. for exceptional legal representation.

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