Wrongful Discharge Claims Under North Carolina Law Must Plead a Specific Public Policy Basis to Avoid a Motion to Dismiss

In the recent case of Horne v. Cumberland County Hosp. Sys., 2013 N.C. App. LEXIS 720 (2013), the North Carolina Court of Appeals held that when a plaintiff alleges wrongful termination in violation of the state’s public policy, the complaint must allege “specific conduct by a defendant that violated a specific expression of North Carolina public policy.” (quoting Considine v. Compass Grp. USA, Inc., 145 N.C. App. 314, 321-22, 551 S.E.2d 179, 184 (emphasis added), aff’d per curiam, 354 N.C. 568, 557 S.E.2d 528 (2001)).  The court further explained that “notice pleading is not sufficient to withstand a motion to dismiss; instead a claim must be pled with specificity.” (quoting Gillis v. Montgomery County Sheriff’s Dep’t, 191 N.C. App. 377, 379, 663 S.E.2d 447, 449, appeal dismissed and disc. review denied, 362 N.C. 508, 668 S.E.2d 26 (2008)).

In the Horne case, the plaintiff, an employee of defendant Cumberland County Hospital System (“CCHS”), was terminated within her probationary period for what the defendant alleged were reasons of malfeasance and poor conduct on the part of the employee-plaintiff.  The plaintiff alleges only that an employee handbook existed and that she was required to sign acknowledgements of sections of that handbook that provided for grievance procedures and employee conduct.

Because the plaintiff believed that her employer had breached the terms of the employee manual, which she argued constituted an employment contract, and because she also believed that the defendant’s terminating her employment violated the public policy of North Carolina, she sued her employer in Cumberland County Superior Court.  The superior court granted CCHS’ motion to dismiss the case under Rule 12(b)(6) of the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure because the court found that the plaintiff failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted under some theory of law.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals examined each of the plaintiff’s claims in her complaint de novo to determine whether the superior court correctly dismissed the case.  This article discusses only the plaintiff’s claim based on wrongful discharge in violation of public policy.

In its opinion affirming the superior court’s dismissal of the case, the Court of Appeals determined that the plaintiff’s complaint failed to allege a specific expression of North Carolina public policy that might have been violated by CCHS’ decision to terminate her employment.  The court investigated and ruled on each of the four ways in which the plaintiff alleged that her termination violated public policy: (1) CCHS violated her constitutional rights to procedural and substantive due process; (2) CCHS failed to comply with its own internal grievance procedures; (3) CCHS breached the covenant of good faith in the employer-employee relationship; and (4) CCHS violated numerous statutory expressions of public policy.

In disposing of the plaintiff’s due process arguments, the appellate court affirmed the principle that both private and public at-will employees do not enjoy constitutional due process protections in securing their continued employment.

Next, the court found that the complaint failed to identify any express public policy violated by a private employer’s failure to abide by its own internal policies.

Further, the court asserted that North Carolina law does not recognize a separate claim for wrongful discharge in bad faith.

Finally, the court found that the plaintiff’s references to general expressions of public policy found throughout the General Statutes were not sufficient to put CCHS on notice of what public policy its termination violated.  The complaint pointed to not one single express statutory statement of public policy.  For that reason, the court determined that her complaint failed to satisfy North Carolina’s heightened pleading standard and therefore failed to state a claim for wrongful discharge in contravention of public policy.

Posted by: Don Davis, Of Counsel, The Noble Law Firm

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