Ruling Protects Jobs Of Domestic Violence Victims

Connecticut Law Tribune - Thomas B. Scheffey
November 28, 2009

Following several months of high-profile domestic violence cases in the state, a Superior Court judge has handed a victory to battered spouses and partners.

In what could be a pioneering case, New London Superior Court Judge A. Susan Peck said employers can’t terminate workers simply because they are victims of domestic violence. In doing so, she found a new public policy exception in the state’s employment-at-will doctrine, which allows businesses and organizations to fire employees for any reason or for no reason at all.

Attorneys say terminations of domestic violence victims aren’t unheard of. “There’s still a lot of stigma attached for someone who’s in that situation. I think [employers] just don’t want to have it on their doorstep,” said attorney Deborah L. McKenna, of the Stamford office of Outten & Golden in Stamford.

McKenna represents a Stonington librarian who was fired by the Stonington Free Library after she had been beaten by her husband, injured and missed some work.

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In a memorandum supporting her motion to strike, Tomasco cited a string of cases in which a trial judge had found the plaintiff already had a remedy under a state statute. When a statute existed, there was no need to have a judge-made exception carved out of the employment at will doctrine, Tomasco argued.

But Judge Peck saw it differently. In her ruling last month, she stated: “The plaintiff has sufficiently stated a claim of wrongful discharge in violation of a clear public policy against domestic abuse” as reflected and established in numerous state laws.

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This past summer saw a series of high-profile domestic violence cases in the state –  including one involving a Hartford lawyer who was kidnapped by her ex-husband. Afterward, the focus was on the effectiveness of protective orders in keeping women and children safe. But the Superior Court ruling would go a step further and ensure a battered spouse or partner job stability during their personal crisis.

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Landmark exceptions to the employment at will doctrine, cited by both sides, include the 1980 case of Sheets v. Teddy’s Frosted Foods. In that case, an employee who made whistleblower complaints to public health officials about unsanitary food conditions could not be fired for doing so, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled.

A 2001 benchmark case held that a woman could not be fired simply for becoming pregnant. And in 1997, in Faulkner v. United Technologies, the state Supreme Court held that it was improper to fire a worker for refusing to go to a war zone, under the public policy requirement that an employer maintain a safe workplace.

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Under Connecticut General Statute 54-85b, if a qualifying individual applies within 90 days of being fired, the employer can be fined up to $500 and found in criminal contempt. The civil action would allow a prevailing plaintiff to collect attorneys’ fees as well as damages, the statute says.

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McKenna, the plaintiff’s lawyer, said she had studied the 90-day remedy, but decided not to even bring it up in court papers. She said she viewed the law as too narrowly drawn to fit her client’s situation.

“She’s not just someone who filed a police report, she’s a victim of domestic violence,” and the judge’s ruling reflects the broader scope, McKenna said. “The statute, 54-18b, is really infrequently used. I think there may be only one or two cases about it, and it has a very short time limitation.

“We think the Connecticut [domestic violence] policy is broader than that,” she said. “We’re arguing for the larger issue.”