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South Carolina Does Not Protect Employee Against Discharge for Reporting Crime to Police

    Client Alerts
  • March 13, 2015

Like most states, South Carolina recognizes a limited exception to its at-will employment doctrine. South Carolina employees can sue their employers for wrongful discharge if the reason for termination violates state public policy. Earlier this year, the South Carolina Supreme Court concluded that the public policy exception does not extend to an employee who claims he was fired for reporting a suspected shoplifter to the police.

In Taghivand v. Rite Aid Corp., the store manager suspected a customer of shoplifting. He called the police who arrived and concluded that the customer had not taken any unpaid items from the store. Rite Aid terminated the manager, presumably for violating its loss prevention procedures. He sued, claiming wrongful discharge based on his protected activity of reporting in good faith a suspected crime to the police.

The lawsuit was filed in federal court, and the district court asked the South Carolina Supreme Court to opine on whether the state’s wrongful discharge tort extends to claims of this nature. The Supreme Court noted that South Carolina has only recognized wrongful discharge claims in two circumstances: The employer orders the employee to violate the law, or the termination is itself illegal. In this case, the plaintiff pointed to South Carolina statutes and common law principles that prohibit interference with or intimidation of witnesses to a crime or suspected crime.

The court rejected this argument, noting that the plaintiff was terminated in response to his reporting the suspected crime, and not to influence or impede his further involvement in any proceedings related to the crime. South Carolina does not recognize any public policy that protects the general act of reporting a suspected crime to the police. Although the Supreme Court recognized that cooperation with police and reporting crimes are laudable citizen behavior, without more specific legislative indication, this behavior does not establish a general exception to employment at-will.

This decision is consistent with repeated South Carolina cases over the years that have refused to extend wrongful discharge beyond clearly illegal behavior on the part of an employer. Terminations that appear unfair or contrary to expected civic behavior will not serve as exceptions to the state’s employment at-will doctrine.