Wrongful Discharge

views updated

Wrongful Discharge

An at-will employee's cause of action against his former employer, alleging that his dischargee was in violation of state or federal antidiscrimination statutes, public policy, an implied contract or an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing.

Office of Senator Mark Dayton v. Hanson

Rarely does the U.S. Supreme Court issue more than a paragraph when it denies certiorari (review) of a case. Not so in Office of Senator Mark Dayton v. Hanson, No. 06-618, 550 U.S. ____ (2007). In a pointed but unanimous six-page opinion, the high court took the time to explain why it lacked jurisdiction to review the case. (Chief Justice Roberts recused himself, as he had previously participated in the case while sitting as a judge on the D.C. Circuit.)

U.S. Senator Mark Dayton's office was appealing an adverse decision by the local federal district court of its motion for summary judgment based on immunity from suit. The office had been sued for wrongful termination by a former employee, Brad Hanson, who had worked for the one-term Senator's 2000 campaign in Minnesota. He eventually became Dayton's State Office Manager, but in 2002, requested three weeks' medical leave for heart surgery and recuperation. While on medical leave, Hanson was contacted by a fellow staffer and told not to return to work.

Hanson subsequently sued the Senator's office for wrongful employment termination under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). (He also added a charge for unpaid overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act.) Hanson claimed that the district court had jurisdiction over the case under the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995, 109 Stat. 3, as amended, 2 USC §1301 et seq. The Act is part of the "Contract with America" initiative of the Bush Administration; under its provisions, Congress subjected itself to 11 labor and employment laws that it had previously passed for private-sector employers.

In response, Dayton's office asserted immunity from suit based upon the Speech and Debate Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Article I,§6 of the U.S. Constitution states, in part, that "[f]or any Speech or Debate in either House, [the Senators and Representatives] shall not be questioned in any other Place." (The main objective of this clause is to afford members of Congress the ability to engage in legislative matters and other constitutional duties without fear of private retaliatory action or questioning by constituents.) In this case, argued the Senator's office, since Hanson worked as an assistant to Senator Dayton in performing legislative duties, forcing Dayton's office to defend against allegations would necessarily "contravene" the Speech or Debate Clause. Any personnel decisions regarding Hanson were shielded by the Clause. Dayton's office moved to dismiss the suit based on lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia denied the motion, and its decision was affirmed by the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The court essentially held that the personal office of any member of Congress could be liable under the Accountability Act for misconduct, if the plaintiff could prove his or her case without inquiring into "legislative acts or the motivation for legislative acts."

On appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Stevens, who authored the Court's opinion, first looked at §412 of the Congressional Accountability Act, which states that the U.S. Supreme Court shall have jurisdiction for direct review "from any interlocutory or final judgment, decree, or order of a court upon the constitutionality of any provision" of the Act. But, noted Justice Stevens, "Neither the order of the District Court denying appellant's motion to dismiss nor the judgment of the Court of Appeals affirming that order can fairly be characterized as a ruling 'upon the constitutionality' of any provision of the Act." Therefore, (treating appellant's jurisdictional statement as a petition for writ of certiorari), the Court found that it did not have jurisdiction under §412, denied review and dismissed the appeal.

Senator Dayton' office (the appellant ) also had argued that the Court of Appeals' holding amounted to a ruling that the Act was constitutional "as applied;" in other words, because the Court of Appeals addressed the issue, this was tantamount to acknowledging that an "as applied" constitutional holding was rendered, thereby satisfying the jurisdictional requirement. However, the Supreme Court did not embrace that interpretation. Just because the Court of Appeals determined that jurisdiction attached, despite a claim of Speech or Debate Clause immunity, did not mean that it was ruling on an issue relating to the Act's constitutionality. At best, the Court of Appeals was merely ruling on the Act's scope.

Moreover, there were no special circumstances that would justify the exercise of discretionary review by the Supreme Court. The high court expressed no opinion on the merits of the case, nor did it decide whether the entire action became moot upon the expiration of Senator Dayton's term in office (January 3, 2007).

Several lawyers, legal scholars, and professors were disappointed that the Court did not take this opportunity to shed some light on the extent of the Speech and Debate Clause, through discretionary review. The Court obviously decided this was not an appropriate case to do so. The case was returned to the district court for consideration on the merits.