|Would you donate a kidney to your brother?|
Here’s a recent Missouri case that makes me wonder “what was this employer thinking?” I don’t think all terminations resulting from an employee’s medical issue are against public policy. But in most cases, showing a little compassion is the right thing for an employer to do. Managers should think long and hard before firing an employee with a serious medical situation.
The Facts: In Delaney v. Signature Health Care Foundation, No. 97419, 2012 LEXIS 694 (Mo. App. E.D., May 22, 2012), Norton, J., the Missouri Court of Appeals decided that Phyllis Delaney had been wrongfully terminated for taking time off to donate a kidney to her brother.
Ms. Delaney worked for Signature Health Care Foundation as a data entry clerk. When her brother needed a kidney transplant and she was a match to provide him with a kidney, Ms. Delaney told her employer that she would be off work for four weeks. According to Ms. Delaney’s allegations, Signature Health first approved her absence, then changed its mind three days before surgery and fired her.
Missouri is an employment-at-will state, which means that an employer can fire an employee for any reason, or for no reason, but not for an illegal reason. Missouri recognizes a “public policy” exception to the employment-at-will doctrine – an employer may not fire an employee for a reason that is contrary to well-established public policy in the state. Specifically, the Court of Appeals in Delaney said:
“Missouri Courts have recognized four categories of the public policy exception to the at-will-employment doctrine. Specifically, an employee has a cause of action when he or she has been discharged for: (1) refusing to perform an illegal act or an act contrary to a strong mandate of public policy; (2) reporting the employer or fellow employees to superiors or third parties for their violations of law or public policy; (3) acting in a manner public policy would encourage; or (4) filing a claim for worker’s compensation. Hughes v. Bodine Aluminum, Inc., 328 S.W.3d 353, 356 (Mo.App.E.D.2010).”
In her lawsuit, Ms. Delaney claimed that Signature Health had wrongfully terminated her employment in violation of Missouri’s public policy encouraging organ donation. Signature Health won a dismissal of the lawsuit in the lower court, but the Missouri Court of Appeals reversed.
Based on a review of several Missouri statutes, the Court of Appeals held that Missouri public policy does encourage organ donation. Therefore, firing an employee because he or she is an organ donor gives the employee a claim under the public policy exception to Missouri’s employment-at-will doctrine. Ms. Delaney deserves her day in court, according to the Court of Appeals, and she will now have an opportunity to prove that in fact she was discharged because she had decided to donate the kidney to her brother.
The Moral: Before managers decide to fire an employee, they should take a step back and think about how the termination would look to an outsider. I always told managers to ask themselves how the case would look in the newspaper, or if they were telling their mother about the situation. If you don’t want to explain yourself to the public or to your relatives, then the termination is probably not a good idea.
In this case, would any rational manager want to explain that they fired a woman because she was going to give her brother a kidney?
In addition, managers should consider whether there are any statutes or regulations that might support a public policy claim like in the Delaney case. If there is any question, talk to an attorney who specializes in employment law.
Ms. Delaney has not yet won her case. It might be that the employee’s absence in this case would truly cause the employer a hardship, and the employer might be able to prove that public policy does not require them to endure the hardship to support her organ donation. But Signature Health had better be able to prove some defense that overcomes the policy in favor of organ donation at trial. Could they not have hired a temporary data entry clerk for the work that Ms. Delaney would miss for four weeks?
In my opinion, they are facing an uphill battle in the court of law and in the court of public opinion. What do you think about this situation?
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I’m still soliciting ideas for stories on workplace terminations to publish. If you have an interesting situation, please email me or leave a comment below. But please disguise the facts to protect the innocent (and not-so-innocent) unless the situation is well-publicized, and then include a link to support your story. I will only publish verified stories.