North Carolina is an at-will employment state. With few exceptions, employers and employees may terminate the employment relationship with or without good reason. A major exception to the state’s at-will employment rule is wrongful termination based upon reasons that violate public policy. North Carolina courts have held that employers may not terminate employees for illegal reasons, or those reasons that are in clear violation of state statutory goals.
A new North Carolina Court of Appeals decision illustrates how limited the public policy exception to at-will employment has become. In McDonnell v. Tradewinds Airlines, the plaintiff was a flight engineer who refused to ferry an aircraft, claiming that he was too fatigued to make the flight. After he was terminated, the plaintiff sued, alleging public policy wrongful discharge. In support of his claim, he cited Federal Aviation Administration rules, as well as a North Carolina statute requiring generally safe operation of aircraft in the State.
The Court of Appeals affirmed the grant of summary judgment to the defendant, concluding that the plaintiff’s allegations did not constitute a sufficient claim of wrongful discharge. In order to avoid at-will employment, the plaintiff must point to specific and clear North Carolina public policy. While federal regulations may be helpful in demonstrating state public policy, the court concluded that the FAA rule cited here was not applicable to the factual situation.
The North Carolina statute relied upon by the plaintiff did not constitute a clear expression of public policy. Much of the alleged conduct took place outside of North Carolina. In addition, a statute calling in general for safe flight operations does not provide a specific basis for challenging the plaintiff’s termination. This decision reflects the increasingly narrow scope of the public policy wrongful discharge exception to the at-will employment doctrine. Plaintiffs relying on this cause of action need to demonstrate a specific statutory basis for their claim.