By Mary Funk
On Wednesday, the Iowa Court of Appeals affirmed the traditionally narrow scope of an action for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy. In Eastman v. Homeland Energy Solutions, L.L.C., No. 3-420/12-2026 (July 10, 2013), the terminated employee argued that she was not truly fired for insubordination as her employer stated, but rather was discharged for being a whistleblower when she made an internal complaint about how her employer conducted its own board of director elections. She argued that her case was an “opportunity for the court to extend and clarify what constitutes public policy.” Having to grasp at straws to identify a clearly recognized public policy that her termination violated, she suggested that public employee whistleblower protections under Iowa Code Section 70A.28, .29 extend to private employers. Without a significant look at the merits of the plaintiff’s particular conduct, the Court rejected her argument, holding that she was unable to demonstrate that there was any recognized and defined public policy of the State at issue. Issues relating to how private employers in Iowa conduct their internal board of director elections is not a matter of public policy.
Iowa has a strong history of employment at will, meaning that an employer can discharge an employee, or an employee can quit, at any time, for any reason and with or without notice. Iowa courts have been very careful about eroding this long-standing principle and the wrongful discharge exception has been interpreted quite narrowly. There are, in fact, only four categories of activities that Iowa courts recognize as being protected by public policy: 1) exercising a statutory right or privilege; 2) refusing to commit an unlawful act; 3) performing a statutory obligation; and 4) reporting a statutory violation. Eastman, at 2, citing Ballalatak v. All Iowa Agric. Ass’n, 781 N.W.2d 272, 275 (Iowa 2010).
Although the Eastman case should caution potential plaintiffs on attempting to style any termination as “wrongful,” there is little doubt they will continue making creative arguments in support of the expansion of this common law tort claim.