Supreme Court of Kentucky Reaffirms Public Policy Claim Must Have “Employment Related Nexus” to Support Wrongful Discharge Suit

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By: Michael J. Lorden

In a recent decision, Marshall v. Montaplast of North America, Inc., the Supreme Court of Kentucky reaffirmed that a cause of action for wrongful termination based on a violation of public policy may proceed only if the public policy at issue is: (a) found in an existing law; and (b) has an “employment related nexus.”

In Marshall, the plaintiff filed a complaint against her former employer for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy, claiming that she was terminated in retaliation for informing her co-workers that their supervisor was a registered sex offender. The plaintiff argued that her termination for disseminating information from the sex offender registry is against public policy because, pursuant to the Kentucky Sex Offender Registration Act (“Act”), the sex offender registry should be open and accessible to everyone.  In contrast, the employer argued that the plaintiff’s claim must fail because no such public policy could be divined from the Act. 

The Supreme Court sided with the employer.  When ruling, the Court made clear that “the public policy involved must have an employment related nexus.” Specifically, the public policy must be “clearly defined by statute and directed at providing statutory protection to the worker in his employment situation.”  And in this case, the Act did not meet the employment-related nexus requirement because its primary purpose was to protect the public generally, and not “the worker” specifically.  While the Act did provide criminal and civil immunity for anyone who disseminated information from the registry in good faith, it did not create a private right to disseminate information from the registry in a private workplace.

This decision comes as good news to Kentucky employers.  Nevertheless, employers in Kentucky that are considering terminating an employee would do well to consult with competent counsel to minimize the risk of a possible public policy claim.