By Raymond R. Rinkol, Jr.
Dorshkind v. Oak Park Place of Dubuque II, L.L.C., No. 11-2100 (Iowa 2013)
The Iowa Supreme Court recently ruled that an internal complaint made by an employee of an assisted living facility concerning forged training documents gives rise to a wrongful termination lawsuit. The Plaintiff, Ms. Dorshkind, observed supervisors falsifying state-mandated training documents for the facility's dementia program during an unannounced inspection by the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals (DIA). Approximately six weeks later, Ms. Dorshkind informed her former supervisor and co-worker about the incident. After an internal investigation by the facility concluded that Ms. Dorshkind was allegedly not truthful in her reports, the facility terminated her. Ms. Dorshkind never reported, threatened to report, or intended to report the activity externally to the DIA.
In a subsequent inspection, the DIA concluded that the facility in fact forged certain state-mandated training documents. Ms. Dorshkind filed suit. Even though Ms. Dorshkind was an at-will employee – who can normally be terminated "at any time, for any reason, or no reason at all" – she alleged that she was wrongfully terminated in violation of public policy, which is in certain circumstances an exception to the at-will doctrine.
A jury awarded Ms. Dorshkind $156,000 in lost pay and benefits (compensatory damages) and $178,500 in punitive damages. The facility appealed arguing, among other things, that there is no clearly defined and well-recognized public policy protecting Ms. Dorshkind's activity, because she did not report the alleged forgery externally to the DIA, but rather only internally to her supervisors. The Iowa Supreme Court disagreed. The Court stated that Ms. Dorshkind's "whistleblowing, which involved reporting violations of law that jeopardized the health, safety, and welfare of dementia patients in an assisted living facility, is supported by a clearly defined and well-recognized public policy."
If you have any questions regarding the public policy exception to the at-will doctrine, please contact Ray Rinkol.
Categories: Employment Law