Many employees are retaliated against in the workplace. But not all retaliation or terminations are illegal. This article discussed the case of Green v. Ralee Engineering Company. This case analyzes whether a company may fire an employee who complains about the failure to follow quality inspection protocols. In this case, the company manufactured airplane parts that were critical in keeping the plane safe.
Facts of the Wrongful Termination Case
In the mid 1990’s Ralee Engineering Company was sued by a former employee, Richard Green. While employed, Mr. Green was a Quality Assurance Inspector. His duties were to inspect Ralee’s manufactured fuselage and wing components for military and civilian aircraft. Ralee supplied those parts to major airline assembly companies such as Boeing and to major war plane assembly companies such as Northrop.
Beginning in 1990, Mr. Green allegedly noticed that Ralee was shipping some airplane parts even though, according to him, they failed the inspections his team performed. On several occasions over the next two years, Mr. Green objected to Ralee’s practice to supervisory and management personnel and to the company president. He made all of his complaints internally, and at no time did he complain to outside government sources.
Despite his complaints, Ralee continued to ship allegedly defective parts to Boeing. In an effort to provide proof of the ongoing practice, plaintiff began photocopying the inspection reports, including some reports concerning parts destined for Boeing. In March 1991, Ralee shut down its night shift, citing a downturn in orders for the parts it produced. Ralee then fired Mr. Green along with other night shift employees.
Mr. Green filed a timely wrongful termination lawsuit against defendant. His attorney alleged Ralee terminated him in retaliation for his complaints about its inspection practices. His lawyer also argued that his complaints served a broad public policy favoring aviation safety, entitling him to tort damages even though he was an at-will employee.
The Defense Attorney’s Argument
Ralee’s lawyer observed it was entitled to discharge Mr. Green because he was an at-will employee. Even if the termination was motivated by Mr. Green’s objections to its inspection and shipping practices, because no statute or constitutional provision specifically prohibited these practices. The trial court granted summary judgment in Ralee’s favor. Mr. Green appealed the decision.
After engaging in independent research, the court identified several key federal regulations involving airline safety on which Mr. Green’s lawyer began to rely on and requested supplemental briefing on whether those regulations could form the basis for his public policy claim.
The Court of Appeal concluded that airline safety was closely tied to the statutory and regulatory purpose. The Court of Appeal also concluded that Mr. Green had established a sufficient connection between the public policy favoring safe manufacture of passenger aircraft and federal law to satisfy California’s wrongful termination requirements.
The California Supreme Court’s Decision
The Court concluded that the public policy behind federal regulations concerning airline safety has a basis in statutory provisions, consistent with case law that the public policy giving rise to a wrongful termination action have a basis in a constitutional or statutory provision.
Allowing Ralee to discharge Mr. Green with impunity after he sought to halt or eliminate its alleged inspection practices would only undermine the important and fundamental public policy favoring safe air travel. By including significant administrative safety regulations promulgated to serve important FAA mandates as a source of fundamental public policy limiting an employer’s right to discharge an otherwise at-will employee, the Supreme Court effectively guarantees that employers do not exercise their right to terminate their employees at will in a way that undermines more important public safety objectives.