From Casetext: Smarter Legal Research

Lockhart v. Commonwealth Education Systems

Supreme Court of Virginia
Jan 7, 1994
247 Va. 98 (Va. 1994)

Summary

holding that in Miller v. SEVAMP, Inc., 234 Va. 462, 362 S.E.2d 915, "we explained that the narrow exception recognized in Bowman is limited to discharges which violate public policy, that is, the policy underlying existing laws designed to protect the property rights, personal freedoms, health, safety, or welfare of the people in general."

Summary of this case from Carmack v. Virginia

Opinion

49214 Record No. 921503 Record No. 930205

January 7, 1994

Present: All the Justices

In a consolidated appeal of two cases in which employees were allegedly discharged from employment on the basis of their race and gender, the judgments of trial courts dismissing the cases on demurrers are reversed, and the cases are remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Employment Law — At-Will Employment — Exceptions — Wrongful Discharge — Racial Discrimination — Sexual Discrimination — Virginia Human Rights Act

The first plaintiff is an African-American who was employed by a college as the director of admissions, and who alleges in her motion for judgment that she was discharged after reporting racially offensive behavior of her co-workers to her superiors. She filed an action alleging that her unsatisfactory performance evaluation and termination were racially motivated and in direct retaliation for her refusal to participate in and her opposition to the college's racially discriminatory practices. The trial court sustained the college's demurrer on the basis that Virginia does not recognize a cause of action for wrongful discharge of employment under these circumstances. The plaintiff appeals. The second plaintiff was employed by a man who allegedly grabbed her, kissed her and hugged her without her consent. The employee protested against the behavior and the defendant fired her. The plaintiff's amended motion for judgment alleges that her discharge was unlawful because it violated the public policy of Virginia as articulated in Virginia's Human Rights Act, Code Sections 2.1-714 through 2.1-725. The trial court sustained a demurrer on the basis that the plaintiff failed to plead a cause of action for wrongful discharge recognized in Virginia. The plaintiff appeals.

1. Virginia adheres to the employment-at-will doctrine under which, when a term of employment cannot be determined from the contract, either party is ordinarily at liberty to terminate the contract at will, giving the other party reasonable notice.

2. The rule is not absolute and the Court has recognized certain narrow exceptions to it.

3. Applying a narrow exception to the employment-at-will rule, the Court held that plaintiffs in another case had stated a cause of action in tort against an employer who discharged them in retaliation for voting their stock in a particular way.

4. In another case, the Court explained that the narrow exception is limited to discharges which violate public policy, that is, the policy underlying existing laws designed to protect property rights, personal freedoms, health, safety, or welfare of the people in general.

5. Here, both of the plaintiffs pled viable causes of action for wrongful discharge based upon violations of Virginia's public policy that there is a personal freedom to pursue employment free of discrimination based upon race or gender.

6. The Virginia Human Rights Act states that it is the policy of the Commonwealth to safeguard all individuals within the Commonwealth from unlawful discrimination in employment, because of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, marital status or disability but the Act does not create any new causes of action.

7. The narrow exception to the employment-at-will doctrine judicially recognized in 1985, two years before the Virginia Human Rights Act was enacted, is the basis for this decision.

8. There is no merit in the argument that one of the actions does not fall within the narrow exception because the plaintiff may have adequate statutory remedies under certain federal statutes, since it is not uncommon that injuries resulting from one set of acts may give rise to several remedies, including common law tort remedies as well as federal statutory remedies.

9. The narrow exception to the employment-at-will doctrine applies in instances where, as here, it is averred that employees are terminated because of discrimination based upon gender or race. The discharges of these plaintiffs were not alleged to be tortious because they had vested right to continued employment, but because their employers purportedly misused the freedom to terminate the services of at-will employees by discriminating against their employees on the basis of race and gender.

Appeal from a judgment of the Circuit Court of the City of Norfolk. Hon. Morris B. Gutterman, judge designate presiding.

Record No. 921503 — Reversed and remanded.

Appeal from a judgment of the Circuit Court of Loudoun County. Hon. James H. Chamblin, judge presiding.

Record No. 930205 — Reversed and remanded.

(Timothy T. Blank), for appellant. (Record No. 921503)

(Thomas M. Lucas; Thomas F. Hennessy; Vandeventer, Black, Meredith Martin, on brief), for appellee. (Record No. 921503)

John M. Bredehoft (Elaine C. Bredehoft; Charlson Bredehoft, on brief, for appellant. (Record No. 930205)

Edward B. MacMahon, Jr. for appellees. (Record No. 930205)


I.

In these appeals, we consider whether former employees who allege they were terminated from their respective at-will employments because of their race and sex have causes of action against their former employers for wrongful discharge.

The trial courts decided both cases on demurrers. Therefore, we will recite the facts in accordance with well-established principles that a demurrer admits the truth of all material facts that are properly pleaded, facts which are impliedly alleged, and facts which may be fairly and justly inferred from alleged facts. Palumbo v. Bennett, 242 Va. 248, 249, 409 S.E.2d 152, 152 (1991).

II. A.

Lawanda Lockhart filed her motion for judgment against Commonwealth Education Systems Corporation, doing business as Commonwealth College. Ms. Lockhart is an African-American who was employed by Commonwealth College at its Richmond campus as the director of admissions.

According to her motion for judgment, Commonwealth College implemented policies and practices of racial discrimination against African-Americans in violation of certain federal statutes and the established public policy of Virginia by discouraging African-Americans from enrolling as students and discriminating against African-Americans in its hiring practices. Ms. Lockhart claimed that Brenda Bryan, president of the Richmond campus, tried to force her to fire, solely on the basis of race, certain African-American employees of Commonwealth College because those employees failed to satisfy production goals, even though white employees who failed to satisfy these goals were retained.

Ms. Lockhart alleged that she was present when high-level employees of Commonwealth College made racially derogatory remarks and jokes about African-Americans. On another occasion, D. White, registrar and minority affairs officer of Commonwealth College, made racially offensive comments to Ms. Lockhart when she was attending a meeting with prospective students.

Ms. Lockhart reported these alleged violations of law to her superiors. She refused to participate in practices and policies of Commonwealth College that violated these laws. In retaliation of Ms. Lockhart's refusal to participate in, and her opposition to, Commonwealth College's racially discriminatory practices and procedures, she was demoted from her position as director of admissions to the position of senior admissions representative.

Thereafter, Ms. Lockhart contacted the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and a private attorney and sought their assistance. The attorney and representatives of the NAACP contacted representatives of Commonwealth College. Subsequently, Ms. Lockhart's superiors gave her an unsatisfactory job performance evaluation and, two days later, discharged her "amid claims her performance was inadequate even though white co-workers, with markedly less productivity, were retained."

Ms. Lockhart filed this action alleging that her unsatisfactory performance evaluation and termination were racially motivated and in direct retaliation for her refusal to participate in and her opposition to Commonwealth College's racially discriminatory practices and policies. Commonwealth College filed a demurrer which was sustained by the trial court on the basis that Virginia does not recognize a cause of action for wrongful discharge of employment under these circumstances. We awarded Ms. Lockhart an appeal.

B.

In June 1991, Nancy L. Wright approached Wayne B. Donelly, president of Donelly Company, a sole proprietorship, and asked if he had an interest in hiring her. In July 1991, Mr. Donelly contacted Ms. Wright by telephone and indicated that a position was available as an administrative assistant. They met and Mr. Donelly offered Ms. Wright the job, which she later accepted.

On July 22, 1991, Ms. Wright began employment with Donelly Company. Mr. Donelly approached her from behind, kissed her cheek, and said "good morning." The next day, after Ms. Wright reported to work, Mr. Donelly "physically seized her, grabb[ed] her and hugg[ed] her without her consent." Ms. Wright advised Mr. Donelly that she did not intend to be subjected to this treatment and that she could not work under these conditions. Mr. Donelly told Ms. Wright that "we would work things out." On July 24, 1991, Ms. Wright reported to work, and Mr. Donelly made repeated abusive, inappropriate, and harassing remarks to her. Ultimately, he ordered her to "get out!"

Subsequently, Ms. Wright filed an amended motion for judgment against Donelly Company and Mr. Donelly alleging, among other things, that her discharge was unlawful because it violated the public policy of Virginia as articulated in Virginia's Human Rights Act, Code Sections 2.1-714 through 2.1-725. The trial court sustained a demurrer filed by the defendants on the basis that Ms. Wright failed to plead a cause of action for wrongful discharge recognized in Virginia. We awarded Ms. Wright an appeal.

III.

Virginia strongly adheres to the employment-at-will doctrine. We have stated:

Virginia adheres to the common-law rule that when the intended duration of a contract for the rendition of services cannot be determined by fair inference from the terms of the contract, then either party is ordinarily at liberty to terminate the contract at will, upon giving the other party reasonable notice.

An employee is ordinarily at liberty to leave his employment for any reason or for no reason, upon giving reasonable notice, without incurring liability to his employer. Notions of fundamental fairness underlie the concept of mutuality which extends a corresponding freedom to the employer.

Miller v. SEVAMP, Inc., 234 Va. 462, 465, 362 S.E.2d 915, 916-17 (1987) (citations omitted).

[2-3] This rule, however, is not absolute, and we recognized certain narrow exceptions in Bowman v. State Bank of Keysville, 229 Va. 534, 539, 331 S.E.2d 797, 801 (1985). There, Betty P. Bowman and Joyce T. Bridges filed actions against the State Bank of Keysville and certain other persons associated with the bank. Bowman was employed by the bank as a bookkeeper, and Bridges was the bank's head bookkeeper. Bowman and Bridges owned five and six shares, respectively, of the bank's common stock. Id. at 536, 331 S.E.2d at 798-99.

Bowman and Bridges alleged in their motions for judgment that the bank's management had negotiated a proposed merger with another corporation that required approval of the bank's stockholders. A special meeting of the stockholders was arranged, and the bank's board of directors prepared and mailed to each stockholder of record a proxy statement. Members of the bank's board of directors knew many stockholders opposed the merger. Id. at 536-37, 331 S.E.2d at 799.

The bank's president informed Bowman and Bridges that they would be terminated if they failed to vote in favor of the merger. Bowman and Bridges executed their proxy cards in favor of the merger under duress and out of fear of losing their jobs. The merger was approved by eight votes more than the number necessary to constitute the required two-thirds majority. Two days after the special meeting, Bridges and Bowman informed the bank president, by letter, that their proxies were invalid, illegally obtained, "improper and null and void." Therefore, there were insufficient votes necessary for the approval. Subsequently, the bank's board of directors voted to abandon the merger, and a majority of the members of the board of directors voted to discharge Bridges and Bowman from their employment with the bank. Id.

The defendants in Bowman argued that because Bridges and Bowman were at-will employees, the Bank could terminate them after reasonable notice for any reason or no reason at all. The former employees argued that the bank and the named board members, utilizing "actions which violated securities and corporation laws, sought to influence the exercise of protected shareholder rights by bringing pressure to bear on the vulnerable employee relationship, and that the employment-at-will rule does not protect the defendants from such conduct." Id. at 539, 331 S.E.2d at 800. Agreeing with the former employees in Bowman, we observed:

In the present cases, the retaliatory discharges were based on violations of public policy by the defendants. Code Sec. 13.1-32 [now Code Sec. 13.1-662] conferred on these plaintiffs as stockholders the right to one vote, for each outstanding share of stock held, on each corporate matter submitted to a vote at a meeting of stockholders. This statutory provision contemplates that the right to vote shall be exercised free of duress and intimidation imposed on individual stockholders by corporate management. In order for the goal of the statute to be realized and the public policy fulfilled, the shareholder must be able to exercise this right without fear of reprisal from corporate management which happens also to be the employer. Because the right conferred by statute is in furtherance of established public policy, the employer may not lawfully use the threat of discharge of an at-will employee as a device to control the otherwise unfettered discretion of a shareholder to vote freely his or her stock in the corporation.

Consequently, applying a narrow exception to the employment-at-will rule, we hold that the plaintiffs have stated a cause of action in tort against the Bank and the named directors for improper discharge from employment.

Id. at 540, 331 S.E.2d at 801.

In SEVAMP, we explained that the narrow exception recognized in Bowman is limited "to discharges which violate public policy, that is, the policy underlying existing laws designed to protect the property rights, personal freedoms, health, safety, or welfare of the people in general." 234 Va. at 467-68, 362 S.E.2d at 918 (emphasis in original).

Ms. Lockhart argues that the narrow exception to the employment-at-will doctrine that we recognized in Bowman includes a cause of action where the former employee alleges wrongful discharge because of racial discrimination. Similarly, Ms. Wright contends that her claim of wrongful discharge based upon gender discrimination falls within that narrow exception. Commonwealth College, Donelly Company, and Mr. Donelly, however, assert that their respective former employees' claims for wrongful discharge do not fall within the Bowman exception.

We hold that Ms. Lockhart and Ms. Wright pled viable causes of action. In Bowman, we recognized the plaintiffs' rights to bring actions for wrongful discharge based upon violations of Virginia's public policy that a stockholder should be permitted to exercise the right to vote stock free of duress and intimidation from corporate management. Here, however, we are concerned with rights of even greater importance, the personal freedom to pursue employment free of discrimination based upon race or gender. Indeed, there are few, if any, greater restrictions on personal freedoms that an employee can suffer than to be terminated because of discrimination based upon race or gender.

The General Assembly has declared this Commonwealth's strong public policy against employment discrimination based upon race or gender. Code Sec. 2.1-715, which is a part of the Virginia Human Rights Act, states in part:

It is the policy of the Commonwealth of Virginia:

1. To safeguard all individuals within the Commonwealth from unlawful discrimination because of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, marital status or disability, in places of public accommodation, including educational institutions and in real estate transactions; in employment; to preserve the public safety, health and general welfare; and to further the interests, rights and privileges of individuals within the Commonwealth.

We recognize that the Virginia Human Rights Act does not create any new causes of action. Code Sec. 2.1-725. Here, we do not rely upon the Virginia Human Rights Act to create new causes of action. Rather, we rely solely on the narrow exception that we recognized in 1985 in Bowman, decided two years before the enactment of the Virginia Human Rights Act.

Without question, it is the public policy of this Commonwealth that all individuals within this Commonwealth are entitled to pursue employment free of discrimination based on race or gender. Indeed, racial or gender discrimination practiced in the work place is not only an invidious violation of the rights of the individual, but such discrimination also affects the property rights, personal freedoms, and welfare of the people in general.

We find no merit in Commonwealth College's argument that Ms. Lockhart's action does not fall within the narrow Bowman exception because she may have adequate statutory remedies available under certain federal statutes. It is not uncommon that injuries resulting from one set of operative facts may give rise to several remedies, including common law tort remedies as well as federal statutory remedies. Indeed, in Bowman, the former employees specifically alleged, among other things, that the proxy statement that the board of directors prepared and mailed to each stockholder of record was false and misleading in violation of federal securities laws and laws of Virginia. Bowman, 229 Va. at 536, 331 S.E.2d at 799.

At least one of the federal civil rights statutes implicated here, Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-7, states: "[n]othing in this subchapter shall be deemed to exempt or relieve any person from any liability, duty, penalty, or punishment provided by any present or future law of any State or political subdivision of a State." Additionally, Commonwealth College's argument that Ms. Lockhart is required to exhaust her administrative remedies under Title VII is not applicable here because she filed a common law tort action alleging wrongful discharge, which is governed solely by state, not federal, law.

IV.

We do not retreat from our strong adherence to the employment-at-will doctrine. We merely hold that the narrow exception to that doctrine, which we recognized in Bowman, includes instances where, as here, employees are terminated because of discrimination based upon gender or race. The discharges of Ms. Lockhart and Ms. Wright are allegedly tortious not because they have a vested right to continued employment, but because their employers misused the freedom to terminate the services of at-will employees by purportedly discriminating against their employees on the basis of race and gender.

Accordingly, we will reverse the judgments of the trial courts and remand these cases for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Record No. 921503 — Reversed and remanded.

Record No. 930205 — Reversed and remanded.


The Virginia Human Rights Act (the Act) provides that: "Nothing in this chapter creates, nor shall it be construed to create, an independent or private cause of action to enforce its provisions. Nor shall the policies or provisions of this chapter be construed to allow tort actions to be instituted instead of or in addition to the current statutory actions for unlawful discrimination." Code Sec. 2.1-725.

The majority merely salutes this statute in passing by saying, "Here, we do not rely upon the Virginia Human Rights Act to create new causes of action. Rather, we rely solely on the narrow exception that we recognized in 1985 in Bowman, decided two years before the enactment of the Virginia Human Rights Act." Those statements are not convincing because it is obvious that today the majority, contrary to the explicit language of the Act, allows private causes of action to enforce the Act's provisions; it also allows generalized, common-law actions for wrongful discharge to be maintained in addition to the statutory actions currently available for unlawful discrimination.

The foregoing failure to follow the mandates of the Act results in an unwarranted encroachment upon Virginia's employment-at-will doctrine, rigidly adhered to by this Court until now.

I would affirm the judgments in both cases.


Summaries of

Lockhart v. Commonwealth Education Systems

Supreme Court of Virginia
Jan 7, 1994
247 Va. 98 (Va. 1994)

holding that in Miller v. SEVAMP, Inc., 234 Va. 462, 362 S.E.2d 915, "we explained that the narrow exception recognized in Bowman is limited to discharges which violate public policy, that is, the policy underlying existing laws designed to protect the property rights, personal freedoms, health, safety, or welfare of the people in general."

Summary of this case from Carmack v. Virginia

holding that plaintiffs' terminations violated the public policy against race and gender discrimination as set forth in the Virginia Human Rights Act, (VHRA), Va. Code § 2.1-715

Summary of this case from Hammonds v. Builders First Source-Atlantic Group Inc.

finding cognizable Bowman claims where statute explicitly articulated public policy to be free from racial and gender discrimination

Summary of this case from Lucker v. Cole Vision Corporation

reversing where plaintiffs alleged wrongful termination based on racial and gender discrimination, and finding claims cognizable under Bowman exception based on public policy to be free from such discrimination explicitly expressed in Virginia Human Rights Act

Summary of this case from Lucker v. Cole Vision Corporation

recognizing narrow public policy exceptions to the employment at will presumption

Summary of this case from Flowers v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.

In Lockhart, however, the claim was not a statutory cause of action under the VHRA, but a common law claim of wrongful discharge in violation of public policy.

Summary of this case from Wimbush v. Kaiser Found. Health Plan of the Mid Atl. States, Inc.

In Lockhart, however, constructive discharge was not referenced and the facts were summarized in a way that implied, but did not confirm, an actual termination by the plaintiff's employer.

Summary of this case from Faulkner v. Dillon

allowing plaintiffs to pursue their common-law causes of action because their claims were within the scope of the race and gender public policy exclusions

Summary of this case from Wynn v. Wachovia Bank, N.A.

In Bowman and Lockhart, therefore, the Supreme Court of Virginia cited language either expressly creating a right ("is entitled to") or explicitly stating that a statute articulated a public policy of the Commonwealth ("it is the policy of the Commonwealth of Virginia"). The statutes cited reflected a clear public policy, and each plaintiff was clearly a member of the class of persons that policy was intended to protect.

Summary of this case from Jordan v. Town of Front Royal

In Bowman, the Supreme Court of Virginia recognized a common law claim for wrongful discharge where a discharge interferes with an employee's exercise of a statutorily-granted right. 331 S.E.2d at 797.

Summary of this case from Jordan v. Town of Front Royal

In Bowman, the employer terminated several employees because they refused to vote shares of stock as their employer directed.

Summary of this case from Jordan v. Town of Front Royal

In Lockhart, the Supreme Court of Virginia considered the claims of two female at-will employees who alleged that their employer wrongfully discharged them because of their race and sex. 439 S.E.2d at 328.

Summary of this case from Jordan v. Town of Front Royal

explaining that the VHRA "does not create any new causes of action"

Summary of this case from Wells v. BAE Systems Norfolk Ship Repair

In Lockhart v. Commonwealth Education Systems Corporation, 247 Va. 98, 439 S.E.2d 328 (1994), the court permitted a claim for wrongful discharge on the basis of the public policy expressed in former Virginia Code § 2.

Summary of this case from Sewell v. Macado's, Inc.

In Lockhart v. Commonwealth Educ. Sys. Corp., 247 Va. 98, 439 S.E.2d 328 (1994), the Virginia Supreme Court held that the prohibitions against race and sex discrimination contained in the Virginia Human Rights Act were indicative of Virginia's strong public policy against such discrimination and could provide the basis for a common law wrongful discharge action.

Summary of this case from Oakley v. May Dept. Stores Co.

In Lockhart, the Virginia Supreme Court stated that "Title VII is not applicable here because [the plaintiff] filed a common law tort action alleging wrongful discharge, which is governed solely by state, not federal law."

Summary of this case from Oakley v. May Dept. Stores Co.

In Lockhart v. Commonwealth Educ. Sys. Corp., 247 Va. 98, 439 S.E.2d 328, 331 (1994), the Supreme Court of Virginia held that a Bowman claim could be based on the public policy of Virginia as that policy is announced in the Virginia Human Rights Act ("VHRA"), Va. Code §§ 2.1-714 to -725.

Summary of this case from McCarthy v. Texas Instruments, Inc.

In Lockhart, the Court expressly noted that it was relying upon the Virginia Human Rights Act not as the predicate for the claim, but only as the source of the public policy, the violation of which gave rise to the tort claim recognized in the public policy exception to the employment-at-will doctrine.

Summary of this case from Leverton v. Alliedsignal, Inc.

In Lockhart v. Commonwealth Educ. Sys. Corp., 247 Va. 98, 439 S.E.2d 328, 331 (1994), the Virginia court acknowledged that the Bowman public policy exception includes terminations based upon, inter alia, gender discrimination.

Summary of this case from Hott v. VDO Yazaki Corp.

In Lockhart, the court, grounding its rationale on the public policies articulated within the VHRA, recognized a cause of action for wrongful discharge because of race or gender.

Summary of this case from Stafford v. Radford Community Hosp. Inc.

In Lockhart v. Commonwealth Educ. Sys. Corp., 247 Va. 98, 439 S.E.2d 328 (1994), the Virginia Supreme Court recognized that employment discrimination based on race was a sufficient breach of public policy to allow a claim for wrongful discharge.

Summary of this case from Lane v. David P. Jacobson Co., Ltd.

In Lockhart, the Virginia Supreme Court rejected the defendant's argument that the plaintiff could not maintain a state common law wrongful discharge action because she had adequate remedies under federal law.

Summary of this case from Mannell v. American Tobacco Co.

In Lockhart the former employers' alleged discriminatory acts, if proven, would have violated Virginia's strong public policy against race and gender discrimination as reflected in Code § 2.

Summary of this case from Bailey v. Scott-Gallaher, Inc.
Case details for

Lockhart v. Commonwealth Education Systems

Case Details

Full title:LAWANDA LOCKHART v. COMMONWEALTH EDUCATION SYSTEMS CORPORATION, d/b/a…

Court:Supreme Court of Virginia

Date published: Jan 7, 1994

Citations

247 Va. 98 (Va. 1994)
439 S.E.2d 328

Citing Cases

Mitchem v. Counts

1-725(D) abrogates Mitchem's common law cause of action because the allegations of wrongful termination, if…

Williamson v. Virginia First Sav. Bank

Since its enactment in 1987, the VHRA has been a persistent force in Bowman claim jurisprudence. In 1994, the…