The California Supreme Court opened the door Monday to more lawsuits by fired whistle-blowers, reinstating a lawsuit by an aircraft parts inspector who was allegedly fired after complaining about shipments that allegedly violated federal safety rules.
The 5-2 ruling addressed a narrow question with broad consequences: Can employees who challenge their firing on "public policy grounds" base that claim on their employer's violation of a federal or state regulation, or only on violation of a law passed by the Legislature or Congress?
The court said a public policy can be defined by a regulation closely tied to a law--in this case, regulations adopted under the federal airline safety law requiring government contractors to inspect their products and to make sure their suppliers do so as well.
Some language in a 1992 ruling, by a more conservative court, suggested that violation of an actual law was required.
The definition is important because most employees hold their jobs "at will" and can be fired with or without cause; their only grounds for a wrongful-firing suit is a claim that some public policy was violated.
"The court has really broadened the kinds of cases that whistle-blowers can bring," said William Quackenbush, lawyer for the Los Angeles County man whose suit was reinstated.
"There are thousands of state and federal regulations which may govern the activity at issue. If any employee complains about something that is wrongful, there may well be some regulation somewhere that provides some protection," he said. " . . . Employees ought not to be fired for complaining about wrongful conduct."
Wayne Flick, lawyer for the Employers' Group, composed of more than 5,000 California private employers, called the ruling "disastrous" and said it would cause "a flood of litigation, most of it frivolous."
"This expands dramatically the costs to California employers in litigating over mostly legitimate employment decisions," said Flick, who predicted the costs would be passed on to consumers.
Quackenbush's client, Richard Green, was hired in 1968 by Ralee Engineering Co. as a quality-control inspector, an at-will job. He said he reported to supervisors, starting in 1990, that Ralee was shipping airplane parts to Boeing, Northrop Grumman and other federal contractors that had failed safety inspections. He did not speak to any federal agencies.
Green lost his job after the company shut down its night shift in March 1991, citing reduced orders. Saying some inspectors with less seniority had kept their jobs, Green accused Ralee of retaliating for his safety complaints.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Burton Bach dismissed the suit, saying that even if Green's claims were true, the company was violating no laws. A state appeals court reinstated the suit and was upheld by the high court.
The opinion by Justice Ming Chin said the suit was ultimately based on the federal law authorizing the Federal Aviation Administration to adopt aircraft safety regulations, such as the rules requiring contractors to inspect their products. Although Ralee was not a federal contractor, its alleged inspection failures would lead directly to violations by contractors it supplied, such as Northrop and Boeing, Chin said.
"Allowing [Ralee] to discharge [Green] with impunity after he sought to halt or eliminate its alleged inspection practices would only undermine the important and fundamental public policy favoring safe air travel," Chin wrote. That is a policy determined by Congress, not the courts, he said.
Justices Marvin Baxter and Janice Rogers Brown dissented, saying the court was expanding wrongful-firing suits into uncharted territory.