7th Circuit: Woman has no claim for tortious interference

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an Indiana Southern District Court ruling throwing out a woman’s suit against her employer because she failed to state a claim for tortious interference under Indiana law.

Kellie Pierce worked for Zoetis Inc. as a sales representative for animal medicines. According to her complaint, she had a bad relationship with her supervisor, Lois Heuchert. Heuchert called her names, generally harassed her in all aspects of her job and interrupted a couple of sales presentations. Pierce complained about Heuchert to human resources, but that just caused retaliation from Heuchert in the form of raising her sales quotas and getting her reimbursements slower.

After working for Zoetis for about a year, Pierce was released shortly after returning from foot surgery for failing to meet her sales quotas. She filed suit in federal court alleging wrongful termination against Zoetis and Heuchert and tortious interference against Heuchert. The District Court ruled Pierce’s wrongful termination claims were not viable because she failed to allege any recognized exception to Indiana’s at-will employment laws. The court also said Pierce didn’t state a claim for tortious interference with a business relationship against Heuchert, because most of Heuchert’s behavior could be explained by Heuchert serving as Pierce’s manager, and she failed to note any illegal action by Heuchert. Pierce appealed only the tortious interference claim.

Pierce argued a comment that was made by Heuchert that she and a business partner were “sleeping together” on a business trip made for tortious interference. However, Heuchert did nothing illegal in saying that, the 7th Circuit held. Previous cases had ruled that defamatory statements alone do not make for illegal conduct, and there has to be illegal conduct in a tortious interference case.

Pierce also claimed Heuchert committed injurious falsehood, but Heuchert’s actions do not meet the definition for, the court said. Injurious falsehood is designed “to rectify pecuniary harm arising from such actions as disparagement of property, disparagement of quality and disparaging statements of opinion as to a plaintiff’s products,” Circuit Judge Ilana Rovner wrote. Heuchert’s actions do not meet that standard.

The case is Kellie Pierce v. Zoetis Inc. and Lois Heuchert, 15-1900.

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