November 6, 2009
Tennessee Retaliatory Discharge Case Clarifies Employee's Subjective Intent Requirement
The Tennessee Court of Appeals, Western Section, issued an opinion on October 30, 2009 which provides an excellent summary of retaliatory discharge "whistleblowing" type claims under Tennessee law. The case is VanCleave v. Reelfoot Bank.
In this case, the plaintiff was a bank employee who refused a bank customer's request to open an account because she believed it would be in violation of bank policy and applicable law. Her supervisor allegedly told her to open the account in the manner requested, and when she refused, her employment was terminated. She sued for retaliatory discharge of the "whistleblowing" type (both common law and statutory).
The trial court granted the employer bank summary judgment, and in so doing it stated that the employee had admitted that her motivation in refusing to open that account as requested was to protect the bank (her employer), not to protect the public.
The Court of Appeals considered whether the employee's subjective intent is an element or factor in these types of claims. More specifically, because these claims require proof that the law to be violated was in furtherance of an important public policy, must an employee prove that she was motivated by furtherance of that public policy, rather than being motivated by more personal interests?
In a well-reasoned opinion which provides an excellent summary of applicable law in this area, the Court of Appeals noted that there is a difference between whistleblowing cases based upon "refusal to remain silent about" an illegal activity, and those based upon "refusal to participate in" an illegal activity. The Court found that the plaintiff's claim in this case was one of "refusal to participate in" illegal activity, and it held that in such cases, a plaintiff need not show a subjective intent to further the public good as an element of her claim.
The Court limited its holding to the particular type of case at hand. Perhaps the Tennessee Supreme Court may weigh in and clarify whether the employee's subjective intent and motivations are a factor, or even an element, in any retaliatory discharge "whistleblowing" type claims under Tennessee law.