January 1994

Workplace Labor Update - Discharge – January 1994

2 min

Maryland's intermediate appellate court recently decided that a claim for abusive discharge arises when an employee is terminated for reporting child abuse. In Bleich v. Florence Critterton Services, 98 Md. App. 123 (1993), Maryland's Court of Special Appeals decided that a teacher employed by a private, non-profit residence for troubled teens who reported the facility's unsafe environment to state officials stated a wrongful discharge claim. The wrongful discharge doctrine is an exception to Maryland's rule that an employer may fire an at-will employee for any reason or no reason. Under this exception, employees may not be terminated in violation of a clear mandate of public policy. From 1983 to 1992, Bleich was a teacher with Florence Critterton Services ("FCS"), a non-profit agency providing residential and educational programs and services for adolescent females in personal crisis. In 1991, the atmosphere at FCS began to change. Residents formed several gang-type groups. In several incidents these gangs intimidated, assaulted, and battered other residents and staff. Bleich expressed concern about these conditions to FCS management, but no action was taken. Bleich claimed that she was terminated for reporting this unsafe environment to State officials. According to Bleich, she wrote a letter to a State licensing specialist about the conditions at FCS. The following work day, Bleich was notified that she was terminated for lack of respect for agency policies, procedures, and management decisions. Bleich's lawsuit alleged that she was wrongfully terminated in violation of two clear mandates of public policy: (1) the constitutional right to free speech, and (2) Maryland's Family Law Code, which requires educators and others providing services to children to report any suspected abuse or neglect. Bleich argued that an individual should not be penalized for speaking out on matters of great importance. The court rejected this constitutional claim because FCS is a private, rather than a public employer. Bleich also claimed that as an educator, she was required to report any suspicions of child abuse to government authorities. The court agreed, finding that Bleich had made a good faith attempt to fulfill her duties and this was sufficient to state a wrongful discharge claim.