The issue in this case is whether an employer has a completely unlimited right to terminate the services of an employee whom it has hired for an indefinite term. The plaintiff, Emard H. Sheets, filed a complaint that as amended alleged that he had been wrongfully discharged from his employment as quality control director and operations manager of the defendant, Teddy's Frosted Foods, Inc. The defendant responded with a motion to strike the complaint as legally insufficient. The plaintiff declined to plead further when that motion was granted. From the consequent rendering of judgment for the defendant, the plaintiff has appealed to this court.
Since this appeal is before us pursuant to a motion to strike,
The plaintiff's complaint alleges that his dismissal by his employer was wrongful in three respects. He claims that there was a violation of an implied contract of employment, a violation of
The issue before us is whether to recognize an exception to the traditional rules governing employment at will so as to permit a cause of action for wrongful discharge where the discharge contravenes a clear mandate of public policy. In addressing that claim, we must clarify what is not at stake in this litigation. The plaintiff does not challenge the general proposition that contracts of permanent employment, or for an indefinite term, are terminable at will. See Somers v. Cooley Chevrolet Co., 146 Conn. 627, 629, 153 A.2d 426 (1959); Fisher v. Jackson, 142 Conn. 734, 736, 118 A.2d 316 (1955). Nor does he argue that contracts terminable at will permit termination only upon a showing of just cause for dismissal. Some statutes, such as the Connecticut Franchise Act, General Statutes § 42-133e through 42-133h, do impose limitations of just cause upon the power to terminate some contracts ; see § 42-133f; but the legislature has recently refused to interpolate such a requirement into contracts of employment. See H.B. No. 5179, 1974 Sess.
The argument that contract rights which are inherently legitimate may yet give rise to liability in tort if they are exercised improperly is not a novel one. Although private persons have the right not to enter into contracts, failure to contract under circumstances in which others are seriously misled gives rise to a variety of claims sounding in tort. See Kessler & Fine, "Culpa in Contrahendo," 77 Harv. L. Rev. 401 (1964). The development of liability in contract for action induced by reliance upon a promise, despite the absence of common-law consideration normally required to bind a promisor; see Restatement (Second), Contracts § 90 (1973); rests upon principles derived at least in part from the law of tort. See Gilmore, The Death of Contract 8-90 (1974). By way of analogy, we have long recognized abuse of process as a cause of action in tort whose gravamen is the misuse or misapplication of process, its use "in an improper manner or to accomplish a purpose for which it was not designed." Varga v. Pareles, 137 Conn. 663, 667, 81 A.2d 112 (1951); Schaefer v. O.K. Tool Co., 110 Conn. 528, 532-33, 148 A. 330 (1930); Restatement
It would be difficult to maintain that the right to discharge an employee hired at will is so fundamentally different from other contract rights that its exercise is never subject to judicial scrutiny regardless of how outrageous, how violative of public policy, the employer's conduct may be. Cf. General Statutes § 31-126 (unfair employment practices). The defendant does not seriously contest the propriety of cases in other jurisdictions that have found wrongful and actionable a discharge in retaliation for the exercise of an employee's right to: (1) refuse to commit perjury; Petermann v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters, 174 Cal.App.2d 184, 189, 344 P.2d 25 (1959); (2) file a workmen's compensation claim; Frampton v. Central Indiana Gas Co., 260 Ind. 249, 252, 297 N.E.2d 425 (1973); Sventko v. Kroger Co., 69 Mich.App. 644, 648-49, 245 N.W.2d 151 (1976); Brown v. Transcon Lines, 284 Or. 597, 603, 588 P.2d 1087 (1978); (3) engage in union activity; Glenn v. Clearman's Golden Cock Inn, Inc., 192 Cal.App.2d 793, 798, 13 Cal.Rptr. 769 (1961); (4) perform jury duty; Nees v. Hocks, 272 Or. 210, 216-19, 536 P.2d 512 (1975); Reuther v. Fowler & Williams, Inc., 255 Pa.Super. 28, 31-32, 386 A.2d 119 (1978). While it may be true that these cases are supported by mandates of public policy derived directly from the applicable state statutes and constitutions, it is equally true that they serve at a minimum to establish the principle that public policy imposes some limits on unbridled discretion to terminate the employment of someone hired at will. See Blades, "Employment at Will vs. Individual Freedom:
The issue then becomes the familiar common-law problem of deciding where and how to draw the line between claims that genuinely involve the mandates of public policy and are actionable, and ordinary disputes between employee and employer that are not. We are mindful that courts should not lightly intervene to impair the exercise of managerial discretion or to foment unwarranted litigation. We are, however, equally mindful that the myriad of employees without the bargaining power to command employment contracts for a definite term are entitled to a modicum of judicial protection when their conduct as good citizens is punished by their employers.
It is useful to compare the factual allegations of this complaint with those of other recent cases in which recovery was sought for retaliatory discharge.
There is error and the case is remanded for further proceedings.
In this opinion BOGDANSKI and HEALEY, JS., concurred.
COTTER, C. J. (dissenting). I cannot agree that, on the factual situation presented to us, we should abandon the well-established principle that an indefinite general hiring may be terminated at the will of either party without liability to the other. Somers v. Cooley Chevrolet Co., 146 Conn. 627, 629, 153 A.2d 426; Fisher v. Jackson, 142 Conn. 734, 736, 118 A.2d 316; Carter v. Bartek, 142 Conn. 448, 450, 114 A.2d 923; Boucher v. Godfrey, 119 Conn. 622, 627, 178 A. 655. The majority by seeking to extend a "modicum" of judicial protection to shield employees from retaliatory discharges instead offers them a sword with which to coerce employers
The majority seeks to minimize the fact that in Petermann v. International Brotherhood of Teamsters, 174 Cal.App.2d 184, 344 P.2d 25 (refusing to commit perjury); Frampton v. Central Indiana Gas Co., 260 Ind. 249, 297 N.E.2d 425 (filing workmen's compensation claim); Sventko v. Kroger Co., 69 Mich.App. 644, 245 N.W.2d 151 (same); Brown v. Transcon Lines, 284 Or. 597, 588 P.2d 1087 (same); Glenn v. Clearman's Golden Cock Inn, Inc., 192 Cal.App.2d 793, 13 Cal.Rptr. 769 (engaging in union activity); Nees v. Hocks, 272 Or. 210, 536 P.2d 512 (performing jury duty); Reuther v. Fowler & Williams, Inc., 255 Pa.Super. 28, 386 A.2d 119 (same); the retaliatory discharges directly contravened a clear statutory or constitutional mandate by viewing these cases as having a least common denominator of establishing "the principle that public policy imposes some limits on unbridled discretion to terminate the employment of someone hired at will." Nevertheless, the thrust of these cases is that a retaliatory discharge in the particular circumstances at issue would be within certain statutory prohibitions; Frampton v. Central Indiana
In contrast, the purposes of the statute the majority would rely on, the Connecticut Uniform Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, General Statutes §§ 19-211 through 19-239, can only be considered as, at most, marginally affected by an allegedly retaliatory discharge of an employee who observed the supposed sale of shortweight frozen entrees and the use of U. S. Government Certified "Grade B" rather than "Grade A" vegetables. A retaliatory discharge in the present case would not necessarily thwart or inhibit the Connecticut Uniform Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act's purpose of protecting the consumer. The plaintiff, if he desired to protect the consumer, could have communicated, even anonymously, to the commissioner of consumer affairs his concerns that his employer was violating the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act so as to invoke the statute's enforcement mechanisms. See General Statutes §§ 19-214 through 19-217. To further and comply with the public policy expressed in Connecticut's Uniform Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act and to avoid the exceedingly remote possibility of criminal sanctions,
Consequently, the majority seemingly invites the unrestricted use of an allegation of almost any statutory or even regulatory violation by an employer as the basis for a cause of action by a discharged employee hired for an indefinite term. By establishing a cause of action, grounded upon "intentionally tortious conduct," for retaliatory discharges which do not necessarily in and of themselves directly contravene statutory mandates, the majority is creating an open-ended arena for judicial policy making and the usurpation of legislative functions. To base this new cause of action on a decision as to whether an alleged reason for discharge "is derived from some important violation of public policy" is not to create adequate and carefully circumscribed standards for this new cause of action but is to invite the opening of a Pandora's box of unwarranted litigation arising from the hope that the judicial estimate of derivation, importance, and public policy matches that of the plaintiff.
Moreover, this is policy making that the Connecticut legislature recently declined to undertake. In 1974, the Connecticut General Assembly considered and rejected a bill which would have provided that "[a]ny employee [including private
Finally, it should be reiterated that the minority of jurisdictions which have created a cause of action
In this opinion LOISELLE, J., concurred.
In Trombetta v. Detroit, Toledo & Ironton R. Co., 81 Mich.App. 489, 498, 265 N.W.2d 385, the court ruled that although a cause of action was stated because the defendant's actions clearly violated the law of the state, the trial court's granting of the defendants' motion for summary judgment was not error because the plaintiff failed to submit any admissible evidence at trial to contradict the sworn statements made by the defendants' agents. In Harless v. First National Bank in Fairmont, 246 S.E.2d 270 (W. Va.), the court was confronted with outrageous circumstances: initial firing, rehiring, demotion, harassment, destruction of incriminating files, collusion between bank officers and bank directors, false promises of confidentiality by bank officers and auditors, an acknowledgment of illegality by a bank director, and finally discharge. In Harless, the plaintiff informed outside regulatory authorities of his employer's violations and those violations of a statute were clearly substantial and intentional. Id., 275.