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Justices rule on constructive discharge issue

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The Indiana Supreme Court decided Tuesday that a claim for constructive retaliatory discharge falls within the state's public policy exemption to the employment-at-will doctrine.

The opinion, Brennan Baker and Moisture Management v. Tremco Inc. and Rick Gibson, No. 29S02-0902-CV-65, addressed only three of five issues Brennan Baker raised on appeal: constructive retaliatory discharge; whether a noncompetition agreement is unenforceable because Baker's new company actually competes with a subsidiary of his former employer, Tremco; and whether a statement from his former supervisor, Rick Gibson, was slanderous per se so as to create an actionable defamation claim.

Baker worked for Tremco selling construction and maintenance of roofing systems. After 13 years with the company, he resigned following a dispute regarding the company's sales and bidding practices, believing they were illegal. Baker then formed Moisture Management, which provided a service similar to one provided by a Tremco subsidiary.

Baker sued Tremco for a declaration the noncompete covenant he signed is unenforceable and also asserted claims for wrongful termination, defamation, and violation of Indiana's blacklisting statute. Tremco counterclaimed seeking enforcement of the covenant and said that Baker breached his contract. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Tremco and Gibson and issued injunctive relief against Baker and his new company.

Baker claimed when he told Tremco he didn't want to participate in the company's allegedly unlawful pricing practices, he was advised he would be fired, so instead, Baker resigned. The Supreme Court concluded that a constructive retaliatory discharge falls within the ambit of the narrowly drawn public policy exception to the employment-at-will doctrine.

The reason for the discharge must fit within the exception as recognized by Frampton v. Cent. Ind. Gas Co., 260 Ind. 249, 297, N.E.2d 425 (1973) and McClanahan v. Remington Freight Lines Inc., 514 N.E.2d 390, 392-93 (Ind. 1988); Baker's claim isn't within the ambit of the recognized exceptions, wrote Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard.

"At its heart, Baker's constructive discharge claim rest on his allegation that the roofing activities conducted under this statutory regime (Indiana Code Section 20-20-1-1) contravene other statutes about bidding public projects," he wrote. "We can be agnostic on such a question of statutory construction and still conclude as a matter of common law that it is not on par with the rights and obligations recognized as a basis for discharge complaints in Frampton and McClanahan."

Using Ohio law and Baker's deposition to settle the noncompete issue, the justices affirmed the trial court finding that Baker was competing for business he had been conducting for Tremco with his new company, Moisture Management.

Finally, the high court addressed Baker's claim that Gibson made defamatory statements per se when he told someone Baker had engaged in inappropriate sales practices. Gibson's statement was far too vague to conclude that they were "so obvious and naturally harmful that proof their injurious character can be dispensed with," wrote the chief justice.

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  2. The practitioners and judges who hail E-filing as the Saviour of the West need to contain their respective excitements. E-filing is federal court requires the practitioner to cram his motion practice into pigeonholes created by IT people. Compound motions or those seeking alternative relief are effectively barred, unless the practitioner wants to receive a tart note from some functionary admonishing about the "problem". E-filing is just another method by which courts and judges transfer their burden to practitioners, who are the really the only powerless components of the system. Of COURSE it is easier for the court to require all of its imput to conform to certain formats, but this imposition does NOT improve the quality of the practice of law and does NOT improve the ability of the practitioner to advocate for his client or to fashion pleadings that exactly conform to his client's best interests. And we should be very wary of the disingenuous pablum about the costs. The courts will find a way to stick it to the practitioner. Lake County is a VERY good example of this rapaciousness. Any one who does not believe this is invited to review the various special fees that system imposes upon practitioners- as practitioners- and upon each case ON TOP of the court costs normal in every case manually filed. Jurisprudence according to Aldous Huxley.

  3. Any attorneys who practice in federal court should be able to say the same as I can ... efiling is great. I have been doing it in fed court since it started way back. Pacer has its drawbacks, but the ability to hit an e-docket and pull up anything and everything onscreen is a huge plus for a litigator, eps the sole practitioner, who lacks a filing clerk and the paralegal support of large firms. Were I an Indiana attorney I would welcome this great step forward.

  4. Can we get full disclosure on lobbyist's payments to legislatures such as Mr Buck? AS long as there are idiots that are disrespectful of neighbors and intent on shooting fireworks every night, some kind of regulations are needed.

  5. I am the mother of the child in this case. My silence on the matter was due to the fact that I filed, both in Illinois and Indiana, child support cases. I even filed supporting documentation with the Indiana family law court. Not sure whether this information was provided to the court of appeals or not. Wish the case was done before moving to Indiana, because no matter what, there is NO WAY the state of Illinois would have allowed an appeal on a child support case!

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