Virginia Supreme Court Refuses To Expand Bowman Doctrine For Wrongful Termination Of An At-Will Employee

Author:Ms Jacquelyn Thompson
Profession:Ford & Harrison LLP

Executive Summary: In Bowman v. State Bank of Keysville, the Virginia Supreme Court first recognized an exception to the employment at-will doctrine based upon an employer's violation of public policy in the discharge of an employee. In subsequent cases dealing with the Bowman exception, the Court has consistently characterized such exceptions as "narrow." In its recent opinion in Francis v. National Accrediting Commission of Career Arts & Sciences, Inc., a case handled by FordHarrison attorneys, the Court again limited the ability of plaintiffs to rely on Bowman to bring a wrongful discharge claim.

Background: In March 2014, the National Accrediting Commission of Career Arts & Sciences, Inc. (NACCAS) hired Noemie Francis as an administrative assistant on an at-will basis. In January 2015, while Francis was at work, another NACCAS employee yelled obscenities at Francis. On January 30, 2015, Francis filed an ex parte petition for a preliminary protective order against her co-worker, which police served on the co-worker at the NACCAS office on February 5. On February 9, NACCAS terminated both employees.

On June 11, 2015, Francis filed suit in the Circuit Court of the City of Alexandria alleging wrongful discharge in violation of public policy under Bowman. The Court rejected her claim, finding she failed to sufficiently allege a true public policy violation. Francis filed an amended complaint, asserting that the public policy of the protective order statute "grants individuals the right to seek a civil protective order to protect the health and safety of the petitioner." She further alleged that the exercise of this right was a motivating factor in her termination.

On September 9, 2015, NACCAS argued that Francis' amended complaint failed to state any valid claim for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy, as Francis was an at-will employee and did not identify any statutorily protected right that NACCAS violated by her termination. On December 9, 2015, the Circuit Court agreed and dismissed the complaint with prejudice. Francis appealed the decision to the Virginia Supreme Court.

Decision: The Virginia Supreme Court reiterated Virginia's long adherence to the at-will employment doctrine, which allows that "an employer is free to terminate the employment relationship without the need to articulate a reason." The Court then discussed the Bowman exemption, which it first recognized in 1985. In the subsequent 30 years, the Court has...

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