As an initial thought to companies, businesses, and governments across the state: Maybe don’t fire an employee for enforcing the law. And maybe especially don’t do it when you’re the government official tasked with, y’know, enforcing the law, since the Supreme Court just might consider such actions to constitute wrongful termination in violation of South Carolina’s public policy.
What Does “Wrongful Termination in Violation of Public Policy” Mean for South Carolina Employees?
Before we dive into the facts of a new South Carolina Supreme Court case, let’s take a minute to review some employment law fundamentals. A basic rule in South Carolina is that employees are “at-will,” which means that her or she can be fired for good reason, bad reason, or no reason at all. However, there are exceptions to this rule. Some exceptions are based on the federal anti-discrimination laws, meaning that an employer can’t discriminate against an employee on the basis of race, sex, religion, national origin, age, disability, and a handful of other categories.
One other exception in South Carolina prohibits an employer from terminating an employee for a reason that violates state public policy. “Public policy” means something that South Carolina considers important enough to pass laws or regulations about it. For example, South Carolina doesn’t like theft, so we have laws that criminalize theft. But if an employer orders an employee to commit theft, and then fires the employee when the employee refuses, South Carolina says that such a termination violates the public policy of the state.
More relevantly to this post, South Carolina also likes construction projects to be safe for the workers and the general public, so it passed laws that require inspections and proper permits for any construction that takes place. Thus, if an employer fires an employee for enforcing the requirement of building permits, then the employer has violated the public policy of South Carolina and will be held liable for such a wrongful termination.
O! Town of Surfside, Thy Personnel Problems to Proclaim!
In a recent South Carolina Supreme Court decision, the Town of Surfside in Horry County, South Carolina received a costly lesson in just how the public policy of South Carolina works. This particular lesson cost the taxpayers of that town hundreds of thousands of dollars. The employee, Jacklyn Donevant, was the building official for the Town of Surfside. Part of her job required her to ensure that any construction within town limits was duly authorized by the Town and supported by a construction permit. When Donevant took medical leave in 2012, Donevant’s boss, Jim Duckett, allowed construction on a building to take place without the proper permit, as required by law. Duckett, as town administrator, had been the target of previous criticism over the lack of a tenant in this particular building, which was owned by the Town, and so had motivation to move construction along on this project before the required permit was issued.
When Donevant returned to work and discovered Duckett’s actions, she promptly issued a stop-work order on the construction, which was the step that she was legally required to take. (Duckett, perhaps aware that Donevant might wish to comply with the law’s requirements more than he was particularly inclined to, had already ordered Donevant not to change anything he had done while she was on leave.) Duckett discovered that Donevant had issued the stop-work order when he went to visit the construction site and was confronted by news cameras asking about the stop-work order. Embarrassed, he suspended Donevant immediately and then fired her a few weeks later.
So What Happens When An Employer Fires An Employee in Violation of Public Policy?
A trial happens, that’s what. In 2014, a jury found that Duckett wrongfully terminated Donevant in violation of public policy and awarded her a verdict of $500,000, which was reduced to $300,000. Four years later, the South Carolina Supreme Court also agreed that firing an employee who follows the requirements of the law violates the public policy of South Carolina (in other words, if any employee takes steps to protect the health and safety of citizens, an employer can’t fire her just because it’s embarrassed that it got caught failing to do its own job). Jim Duckett remains employed by the Town of Surfside.
What Does This Mean for South Carolina Employees?
For employees, it’s often difficult to determine whether the public policy exception applies to your termination, and a consultation with an experienced South Carolina employment lawyer can prove instrumental in making that determination. If you’ve been terminated and believe that your termination is in violation of the law, don’t hesitate to contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.