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South Carolina Supreme Court Finds Employee Cannot Sue for Breach of Contract and Wrongful Discharge

    Client Alerts
  • October 05, 2015
As with most states, South Carolina recognizes an exception to its general employment at-will doctrine. Employers may terminate employees with or without cause, but not for any reason that violates the state’s public policy. Last month, the South Carolina Supreme Court considered a wrongful discharge claim from an employee who also alleged that his employer breached the terms of an employment contract between the parties.

In Cunningham v. Anderson County, the plaintiff was the county administrator who was initially employed under a three-year employment contract that provided for severance payments if the agreement was terminated for reasons other than good cause. After an election, the new board of commissioners terminated the plaintiff’s employment. He sued, claiming both breach of the employment contract and wrongful discharge, alleging that he was let go because he refused to fire county employees for political reasons.

On appeal, the South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed dismissal of all of the plaintiff’s claims. The court concluded that the wrongful discharge claim does not apply to an employee subject to a term employment contract. In other words, the concept of wrongful discharge only applies to persons employed at-will. The contract was not breached because the new commission had the right to replace the plaintiff.

Several dissenting justices contended that the plaintiff was not pleading both breach of contract and wrongful discharge. Instead, they believe he contended that once the new county board was elected, he became an at-will employee. Thus, the two claims involved alternative theories of recovery. Regardless, the majority opinion makes clear that employees under a term employment agreement cannot claim wrongful discharge in South Carolina. While the vast majority of employers prefer the flexibility that at-will employment provides, this case gives some protections against some claims from the minority of employees working under term employment contracts