Maryland follows the “employment-at-will” doctrine, which means that the employer-employee relationship can be terminated by either party, at any time, for any reason or for no reason at all.
However, there are two exceptions to this doctrine.
The first applies when the employment is subject to an express or an implied contract for a fixed duration (i.e. a five-year contract). The second applies when an “at-will” employee is terminated in clear violation of a public policy or for exercising a protected right.
In 1981, Maryland’s Court of Appeals first recognized the existence of a public policy exception to the employment-at-will doctrine in response to a certified question from the United States District Court for the District of Maryland. Adler v. American Standard Corp involved a management employee who alleged that he was terminated for reporting improprieties in his employer’s operation.
In response to Adler’s claim, the United States District Court certified the following questions to the Maryland Court of Appeals: Does Maryland recognize a cause of action for abusive discharge; and, if so, did Adler’s allegations state a claim under Maryland law?
The Maryland Court of Appeals responded by recognizing an exception to the employment-at-will doctrine. The Court concluded that a cause of action for “abusive discharge” may be maintained by an at-will employee who can demonstrate that “the motivation for the discharge contravenes some clear mandate of public policy.”
Maryland defines “public policy” as a “principle of the law which holds that no subject can lawfully do that which has a tendency to be injurious to the public, or against the public good.”
Maryland’s courts have taken a narrow view of what constitutes “public policy,” and have been reluctant to judicially create otherwise undeclared sources of public policy as a basis for maintaining a wrongful discharge action.
In Parks v. Alpharma, Inc., 2011, the Maryland Court of Appeals explained:
“We have always been aware, however, that recognition of an otherwise undeclared public policy as a basis for a judicial decision involves the application of a very nebulous concept to the facts of a given case, and that declaration of public policy is normally the function of the legislative branch. We have been consistently reluctant, for example, to strike down voluntary contractual arrangements on public policy grounds.”
Some examples of public policy mandates that have been found to be legally sufficient in supporting a wrongful discharge claim include:
- Reporting a criminal activity such as child abuse to law enforcement when under a legal duty to do so. (See Bleich v. Florence Crittenton Serv., 1993.)
- Refusing to submit to a polygraph examination. (See Moniodis v. Cook, 1985.)
- Refusing to engage in “quid pro quo” sexual activity. (See Insignia Residential Corp. v. Ashton, 2000.)
- Filing a worker’s compensation claim. (See Ewine v. Koppers Co., Inc., 1988.)
- Exercising a constitutional protected right such as the first amendment. (See De Bleecker v. Montgomery County, 1982.)
To plead a cause of action for wrongful discharge in Maryland, a plaintiff must specifically allege that he or she was terminated for efforts to fulfill a statutorily prescribed duty, or for a failure to engage in illegal activity, or for exercising a protected right.
The plaintiff also must plead with particularity the source of public policy that was allegedly violated, and how the termination violated the law. Vague or conclusory factual allegations are legally insufficient to support the claim.
David B. Applefeld is the litigation section chair at Adelberg, Rudow, Dorf & Hendler, LLC, and focuses his practice on business litigation and construction law.