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Connecticut Superior Court Holds That Filing Personal Injury Lawsuit Does Not Constitute Speech on a Matter of Public Concern

Posted by Cindy M. Cieslak | Oct 18, 2018 | 0 Comments

On February 28, 2018, the Connecticut Superior Court entered judgment for the employer on plaintiff's claims of termination in violation of public policy and breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing in Richard v. Para-Pharm.  Then, on July 13, 2018, the Connecticut Superior Court granted another employer's motion to strike count two of plaintiff's complaint alleging a violation of Conn. Gen. Stat. § 31-51q in Hussey v. Robert Mark Associates, Inc.

Factual Backgrounds: Plaintiff Richard, a former home medical equipment technician for Para-Pharm, was terminated after she filed a personal injury lawsuit against her employer's landlord and co-tenant.  Plaintiff filed that lawsuit after she fell walking between her van and her employer's office on what she claimed was a defective sidewalk.  She sustained injuries serious enough to require time off from work and qualified for and received workers' compensation.  Following Defendant's request, Plaintiff refused to withdraw her suit.  Plaintiff was an at-will employee, but she claimed, inter alia, that her termination was wrongful because it violated the public policies providing that individuals have the right to redress under the state and federal constitutions and the common law of the state recognizing the right to redress and the right to be free from the negligence and/or wrongdoing of another.

Plaintiff Hussey was a former employee of Robert Mark Associates, Inc. d/b/a Bill's Seafood.  She was terminated from her employment after filing a personal injury lawsuit against Pier 76, with whom Bill's Seafood has a business relationship.  Count two of her wrongful termination claim alleged that her lawsuit against Pier 76 was a constitutionally protected exercise of her right to free speech and her termination as a result of this exercise of her rights violated Conn. Gen. Stat. § 31-51q.

Court's Analysis: The Court in Richardheld that the public policy of Connecticut does not protect an at-will employee if she files a lawsuit with which her employer disagrees.  In response to Plaintiff's citation to an Ohio decision for the proposition that the courthouse door must be open to the people of the state and they must be able to enter court without fear of losing their livelihood; Chapman v. Adia Services, Inc., 116 Ohio App. 3d 534 (Ohio App. I Dist. 1997); the Court distinguished that case as one in which the plaintiff had been terminated after merely consulting an attorney following a slip and fall on the premises of one of her employer's prime customers.  Unlike Ms. Richard, that plaintiff did not file or even threaten to file a lawsuit. The Court analyzed cases from Ohio and nine other states, all of which held that an employee who sues in the face of her employer's disapproval is not protected.  The Court also noted that, pursuant to the analysis in Sheets v. Teddy's Frosted Foods, Inc., 179 Conn. 471 (1980), judicial intervention into an otherwise at-will employment relationship is only warranted when an employee acts for the benefit of the public.  Here, there was no public benefit in protecting Ms. Richard for filing a personal injury claim.

The Court in Hussey found that, as a matter of law, there is no public interest addressed in a plaintiff's filing of a personal injury lawsuit to recover for her own injuries. The Court cited to Daley v. Aetna Life & Casualty Co., 249 Conn. 766, 776 (1999) for the now well-established proposition that “[Conn. Gen. Stat. § 31-51q protects from retaliatory discharge an employee who invoked constitutionally guaranteed free speech rights, that, in turn, protect ‘statements that address a matter of public concern.'”  Because legally, a personal injury lawsuit is not a matter of public concern, the Court granted Defendant's motion to strike that count of the complaint.

Conclusion: These decisions demonstrate the employer's ability to terminate the employment of an employee who brings privately-based lawsuits against a customer or business associate without fear of a costly lawsuit in response.  Of course, it is critical for employers to refrain from terminating or otherwise retaliating against employees who engage in speech that is legally protected.   Employers should seek legal advice if there is any question as to whether an employee's speech constitutes a matter of public concern.

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