In a 4-1 decision, the Utah Supreme Court recently held that the right of self-defense is of sufficient magnitude to qualify as a “substantial public policy” exception to the at-will employment doctrine in Utah. Ray et al. v. Wal-Mart (Utah 2015). But the court limited the exception to certain extraordinary situations.
The case stemmed from two separate incidents between employees and shoplifters at two Wal-Mart stores.
The first incident involved two employees who had confronted a shoplifter. When she tried to run away, they grabbed her arms. During the struggle, the shoplifter pulled out a small pocketknife and shouted that she was going to stab the employees if they did not let go. They held on, however, and a customer helped pry the knife out of her hand.
In the second incident, several employees had approached a customer who was attempting to steal a laptop by concealing it in his pants. They escorted him to the store’s asset protection office where they were joined by another employee. Exactly what happened next is disputed.
According to the employer, the customer placed the laptop on a desk and stated, “You have your laptop, I am now going to leave, and I have something I am not supposed to have.” One of the employees saw the customer move a gun from his back to his coat pocket. The employees pinned the customer against a wall and grabbed the gun.
According to the employees, after the customer removed the laptop from his pants, he said, “I have something I shouldn’t have. Don’t make me do this!” One of the employees noticed the customer had a gun, and yelled “Gun! Hand!” The customer rushed toward the door, but then turned and shoved one of the employees against the wall and pressed the gun to the employee’s back. Other employees removed the gun from the customer’s hands and forced him to the ground.
Employer policy required that employees investigate, document, and prevent the theft of merchandise by customers and employees. But policy also required that employees withdraw and disengage from situations if it became apparent that a theft suspect had a weapon, or brandished or threatened use of a weapon.
The two employees involved in the first incident, and three of the employees involved in the second incident, were terminated for violating the “withdraw and disengage” policy.
The terminated employees filed suit in U.S. District Court for the District of Utah. They claimed they were terminated for exercising their right of self-defense in violation of substantial public policy in Utah (an exception to the employment-at-will doctrine). Because the Utah public policy issue was one of first impression, the district court “certified” the issue to the Utah Supreme Court (with the request that the Utah Supreme Court assume the employees were unable to disengage from the incidents).
The court concluded that “an individual’s right of self-defense outweighs an employer’s interest in regulating its workforce and property through de-escalation and non-confrontation policies.” Thus, the court determined that an employee terminated for acting in self-defense may sue his or her employer for wrongful termination, but only if “the employee faced an imminent threat of serious bodily harm under circumstances where he or she was unable to safely withdraw.”