"Self Defense" Insufficient to Sustain Wrongful Termination Claim

In the heat of an argument, when tempers flare and harsh words fly, surely most people feel their words and actions are justified, depending on the situation. However, in the workplace, offensive or threatening language, even if it is purportedly spoken in "self-defense," may not be sufficient to protect you from termination. One New Hampshire employee discovered this the hard way.

Leeds v. BAE Systems

A recent New Hampshire Supreme Court case discussed a somewhat novel employment law issue when an at-will employee sued BAE Systems for terminating him after he violated the employer's conduct policy prohibiting the use of "abusive or threatening language." Lawrence Leeds was a quality control inspector at BAE Systems for approximately eight years and had never received any disciplinary actions. Then he received his first written warning for abusive behavior towards a coworker, at whom he yelled obscenities. Leeds argued that he was simply criticizing the employee for his job performance. Leeds was warned that further misconduct could lead to his termination.

Three months later, while on his way to work, he was involved in an episode of road rage. Another driver, believing that Leeds had cut her off, followed him to the parking lot of BAE Systems and then parked perpendicular to him to block him in. They became "engaged in a shouting match involving obscenities," and at one point the other driver pointed her cell phone at Leeds and he swatted it away, breaking it. When it was all said and done, Leeds did not dispute that he was yelling and swearing at the other driver. After an internal investigation, Leeds was terminated.

Leeds filed a lawsuit for wrongful discharge and BAE Systems was granted summary judgment. Leeds filed an appeal, arguing that his conduct was protected by public policy. He characterized his conduct as "self-defense," but the New Hampshire Supreme Court was not convinced. On November 5, 2013, the court affirmed the dismissal of his case, holding that as a matter of law, public policy neither encouraged Leeds' actions nor superseded the employer's policy prohibiting abusive language and behavior in the workplace.

Public Policy Considerations in the Context of Wrongful Discharge

To succeed on a wrongful discharge claim, an employee must establish that the termination was "motivated by bad faith, retaliation or malice;" and that he was terminated "for performing an act that public policy would encourage or for refusing to do something that public policy would condemn." In this case, as the court held, the facts surrounding the altercation with the other driver were immaterial to this analysis. Even if Leeds was acting in self-defense to the unprovoked aggression of the other driver when he broke her cell phone (assuming, as Leeds argued that he thought it was a gun), the rest of his conduct could not be considered self-defense. Therefore, the trial court was correct in ruling that public policy did not protect Leeds' conduct, and there was no need to even address the bad faith element of the wrongful discharge analysis.

The lesson to be learned ‑ curb your temper and hold your tongue. Conduct you may think is justified and protected usually is neither.

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