News: CJ Exclusives

Court Rules on “Protected Class”

Appeals panel upholds ruling on domestic-abuse victims and employment law

In an April 20 decision, a divided panel of the N.C. Court of Appeals affirmed a lower-court ruling that North Carolina employment law does not recognize domestic-abuse victims as a protected class.

In July 2001, James Imes’ wife shot him in a domestic dispute. Soon thereafter, Imes was fired from his job as a bus driver. He alleges that his general manager informed him that the termination was because he was a victim of domestic violence. Imes sued, contending that dismissal was in violation of public policy.

North Carolina employment law is based upon the concept of employment at will. An employer can legally fire a worker for virtually any reason or even no reason at all. The exception to this is that a company may not legally dismiss someone on a ground that would violate an established public policy. For example, it is illegal to fire a worker because they refused to break a law.

“The issue on appeal is whether Plaintiff’s complaint states a valid claim for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy,” wrote Judge James Wynn. He and Judge Rick Elmore concluded that it did not.

“We do not dispute Plaintiff’s allegation, nor the dissent’s position, that domestic violence is a serious social problem for our State and is recognized as such by our General Assembly and the Governor,” wrote Judge Wynn for the court. “It is, however, but one of many social problems addressed by our General Statutes. Poverty, child abuse, juvenile delinquency, substance abuse — all are examples of social ills our General Statutes seek to alleviate…

“All such statutes may be read to express a general public policy in favor of protection of victims of poverty, child abuse, substance abuse, etc. We do not interpret such statutes, however, as creating specialized and protected classes of persons entitled to employment and other status protection. If the General Assembly desires to exempt victims of domestic violence from the at-will employment doctrine, it is free to do so. This Court, however, may not create public policy exemptions where none exist.”

Judge Patricia Timmons-Goodson dissented.

“While I agree with the Court’s conclusion that the Domestic Violence Act formally recognized the problems associated with domestic violence, I conclude that the Act also formally recognized that the perils of domestic violence are often experienced in the workplace, ” she wrote. “In response to this recognition, the Legislature took the affirmative steps detailed in §§ 50B-3(a) and 96-14(1f). Noting that any exception to the at-will employment doctrine ‘should be adopted only with substantial justification grounded in compelling considerations of public policy,’ …

“I conclude that the Domestic Violence Act and the pertinent Employment Security Law provisions detailed herein represent an expression of North Carolina’s strong public policy aimed not only at supporting victims of domestic violence, but also at preventing the effects of domestic violence from entering the workplace.”

N.C. General Statue § 96- 14(1f) ensures that individuals are not denied unemployment benefits if they are forced to leave a job because of domestic violence. Under General Statue §50B-3(a), courts can issue protective orders to keep an alleged harasser from visiting a victim’s work place.

Because of the divided opinion, the final word on the matter will in all likelihood come from the N.C. Supreme Court.

The case is Imes vs. City of Asheville (03-218).

Click here if you want to link to the decision.

Lowrey is associate editor of Carolina Journal.