Sometimes the Washington Supreme Court pleasantly surprises employers. Today is one of those days. The Court issued its decision today in Briggs v. Nova Services. The plaintiffs in this case were eight employees of Nova Services, a non-profit social services organization in Washington. The employees apparently had major problems with the executive director who was appointed by the board, Linda Brennan. They sent a letter to the board expressing their disapproval with Ms. Brennan’s job performance. They explained that she “left managers to do work in isolation, failed to delegate authority well, did not hire needed staff, failed to foster open communication, and was poor at managing finances.” The board hired a lawyer who confirmed that regardless of whether Ms. Brennan was a decent manager, she had done nothing illegal. He suggested that the board either fire Ms. Brennan or the two employees who were the ringleaders of the disgruntled group, Ken Briggs and Judy Robertson, because their animosity clearly ran too deep to foster a positive working environment. The board decided to let Ms. Brennan stay. After an unsuccessful attempt to mediate their dispute, Ms. Brennan ultimately fired Briggs and Robertson. The other six employees responded by writing another letter to the board protesting the firing of Briggs and Robertson and threatening, in essence, unless Brennan is fired and Briggs and Robertson are reinstated, we quit. The employees gave the board one day to respond and stated that the deal was “non-negotiable.” The board did not respond and the employees did not report to work.
The at-will employees sued for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy. This cause of action is a narrow exception to the at-will employment doctrine. It only applies where an employee is fired for something like refusing to engage in an illegal act, performing a public obligation like jury duty, exercising a legal right like voting, or in retaliation for reporting employer misconduct (whistle blowing). Relying on RCW 49.32.020, the employees argued that Washington law, like the federal labor laws, protects employees’ rights to engage in concerted activities. In essence, this law protects non-union employees who work together to complain/negotiate/bargain with their employers over terms and conditions of employment. The Court determined that RCW 49.32.020 was not meant to apply to this context of a protest walk out over the firing of two employees and the retention of a disliked boss. The Court focused on the idea that “working conditions includes things like better wages, improved medical coverage, better treatment from supervisors, lunch and rest breaks, layoffs and recalls, production quotas, work rules, on the job harassment, and even food prices at in-plant dining rooms.” The Court determined that management decisions which “lie at the heart of entrepreneurial control” are not terms and conditions of employment. Thus Nova’s decision to replace the employees who walked out in protest was not a wrongful termination in violation of public policy. There was a dissent which focused more on federal labor laws as persuasive. Under federal law, this case might have come out differently. There were also two concurring opinions. Justice Madsen’s opinion focused on the fact that the plaintiffs never raised the RCW 49.32.020 issue until the appeal, which is arguably way too late to bring it up. Justice Johnson’s opinion was a bit more complicated but essentially argued that the Court mixed up two completely separate issues, the wrongful discharge tort and the protected concerted activity statute. He agreed that complaining about a bad boss is not protected.
The bottom line for employers is that in Washington, it is not necessarily “protected concerted activity” (and that is a legal term of art to be discussed with your labor lawyer when necessary) for employees to protest everything in the workplace. There are still going to be some workplace issues that are clearly terms and conditions of employment. Employees can band together to complain about these issues. Other workplace concerns may not be safe for at-will employees to protest. One such concern is clearly who’s the boss. With support from today’s decision, there will be others. Before taking any action in response to employees who act collectively, however, it would be very prudent to consult an experienced labor lawyer.