In its 1989 Coman v. Thomas Mfg. Co., Inc. decision, the North Carolina Supreme Court recognized a limited exception to the state’s employment-at-will doctrine. That exception allows employees to sue for wrongful discharge if they allege that they were terminated for an illegal reason or one that violates public policy. Even since Coman, state court have weighed in over the limits of the wrongful discharge tort. Earlier this month, the North Carolina Court of Appeals concluded that employees could pursue such claims, even when a state law provides a statutory remedy for such acts.
In Woody v. AccuQuest Hearing Center, LLC, the plaintiff was terminated following her request for a leave of absence to treat her heart condition. The employer claimed that the action resulted from the plaintiff’s mishandling of deposits, but she sued for wrongful discharge, citing state law prohibiting discrimination against disabled persons. The employer moved to dismiss the suit on the grounds that state law contains specific procedures and remedies for addressing discrimination claims, thereby preempting the wrongful discharge claim. The lower court agreed, dismissing the claim.
The North Carolina Court of Appeals reversed this dismissal in a 2-1 decision, remanding the suit for further proceedings. The employer argued that the state statutes are the exclusive way for employees to pursue discrimination claims, noting the 180-day limitations period and remedy provisions that would be pointless if plaintiffs could pursue a tort action instead. The court rejected this reasoning, finding no explicit or implied legislative intent to limit aggrieved employees from pursuing wrongful discharge claims in response to discriminatory actions. Absent a clear expression of legislative intent to the contrary, these remedies are considered cumulative and not exclusive.
This decision replaces the 180-day statutory deadline for filing state law disability discrimination claims with the three-year one applicable to wrongful discharge claims. The court did not discuss the interplay between federal civil rights laws and state wrongful discharge claims. It is possible that federal or North Carolina courts could conclude that an employee who sues under federal law cannot also include a state wrongful discharge claim. However, unless this decision is reversed by the North Carolina Supreme Court, employers can expect an increasing number of disability discrimination lawsuits filed in state court seeking punitive and other damages for wrongful discharge.