Employees should have broader rights to sue if they have been fired without cause, the Utah Supreme Court has decided.
In a split decision released Tuesday, justices overruled a lower court decision that a woman fired by a clothing store had no recourse after being fired for refusing to submit to a polygraph examination. Justices sent the case back to 2nd District Court.Associate Justice Christine Durham said the so-called "at-will doctrine," allowing employers to fire workers without cause, is grounded in an 1877 court decision based on inappropriate reasoning. The case was the foundation for a doctrine that has become well-established nationwide.
Prior to 1877, English courts had held that workers hired without promises or contracts were presumed to be allowed to work one year.
"This court historically adopted the at-will rule wholesale and applied it without considering possible countervailing interests," Durham wrote.
She noted the court had made some exceptions to the doctrine in recent years, and she suggested more exceptions to expand the grounds by which fired workers can sue their former employers.
"Rigid adherence to the at-will rule is no longer justified or advisable," she wrote.
Three of the five justices disagreed with the details of Durham's suggestions. However, justices Daniel Stewart and Michael Zimmerman agreed with Durham's argument that the "at-will" rule should not apply when workers and employers have an express or implied agreement as to the duration of employment or that an employee could be terminated only for cause.
And all five justices agreed the woman in this case should receive a trial on her claim that such an implied agreement was violated.
The suit was filed by Shirley Berube, an assistant manager of a Fashion Gal store in Ogden who was fired after asking that a polygraph test be delayed. Berube already had submitted to two such tests administered because the store was concerned about inventory that was missing.
Berube had passed the first two tests and was suspicious and nervous about taking a third test. Fashion Gal officials told Berube she had a choice of either taking the test or being fired.