Legal Update: If An Employer Fails to Renew a Contract, It Can Constitute Illegal "Wrongful Discharge"
The Maryland Court of Special Appeals clarifies and holds that an employer cannot fail to renew a teacher's contract, and hide behind the excuse that it was set to expire, if motivated by an illegal motive, in the recent decision of Miller-Phoenix v. Balt. City Bd. of Sch. Comm'rs, 246 Md. App. 286, 228 A.3d 809 (2020).
In Miller-Phoenix, a long-time public-school teacher in the Baltimore City, struggling with PTSD, alleges that he informed his principal that he was intending to file a PTSD-related worker's compensation claim. At the same time, his teaching certification had happened to lapse. So, he was teaching on a provisional renewable contact. A few months later, the school system decided to not renew it, and let him go. Id. at 286-294.
Coincidence? Don't think so, said this teacher.
The teacher then sought and obtained a lawyer to seek redress.
Maryland common law permits people fired in retaliation for filing worker compensation claims to sue civilly for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy. Id. at 295-96 (citing Ewing v. Koppers Co., 312 Md. 45, 537 A.2d 1173 (1988)).
What Happened Next?
The trial court, however, dismissed the teacher's lawsuit because the school system successfully argued that they simply permitted his contract to lapse. They did not extend him a new one, and also did not fire him, argued the school.
Yet the teacher reversed this framing on appeal.
The Court of Special Appeals rejected this smoke-and-mirrors argument. If an employer is illegally motivated to terminate an at-will employee, or terminate an employment that persists on various annual renewable contracts, this illegal motive is what constitutes the wrongful discharge, clarifies the Court. Id. at 295-301.
While this may seem intuitive on one hand, at the same time, the Court of Special Appeals has clarified an important aspect of the law.
Where an employer acts illegally to end an employment -
(i) whether because an employee who refuses to give in to sexual harassment -
(ii) because a long-time teacher says he wishes to file a worker's compensation claim for a work-related injury -
(iii) or because of illegal discrimination, or because of another motive made illegal by law; then,
that employer can be held accountable in a Maryland court of law.
As the Court said: “The ‘wrongful’ element of the tort of wrongful termination lies not in the fact of termination but in the motivation for it. In other words, ‘it is irrelevant whether the right to discharge exists . . . . The issue is whether the employer abused that right.’” Id. at 301 (citing and quoting Finch v. Holladay-Tyler Printing, 322 Md. 197, 206, 586 A.2d 1275 (1991)).
In conclusion, if you’re looking for an employment and family law attorney in Towson, MD, reach out to Mosson Law, LLC.
I take a mindful approach to the practice of law and aim to provide my clients with strategic and holistic advice during the legal process. I also consult with people about employment and family matters, behind the scenes, and to appear at courts and before administrative bodies and agencies.
Gregg H. Mosson, Esq.
Mosson Law, LLC
ABOUT: Our founder and experienced attorney, Mr. Mosson, focuses on representing employees in claims of illegal discrimination, illegal retaliation, disability rights violations, wrongful terminations, and when seeking owed wages. He represents family members as well who are navigating the complexities of separation, divorce, custody, and alimony. He also serves people seeking disability benefits from Social Security. His experience and knowledge in these areas of the law are vast and helpful to the clients he represents. For more details, please click here or contact us by clicking here.