Plant Whistleblower’s Firing OK Because He Didn’t Join Misconduct

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By Jon Steingart

A manufacturing plant worker who was fired after he reported colleagues were signing off on defective products can’t claim his termination violated Kentucky public policy, a federal appeals court ruled.

Kofi Alexander was fired after he told a supervisor that co-workers on an earlier shift at Eagle Manufacturing Co. were wiping off marks that signified engine components were faulty, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit said. Kentucky employers can fire someone for any reason or no reason at all under an at-will employment doctrine.

An employee can challenge his termination if it results from failing or refusing to violate a law, but not from reporting others’ involvement in a violation in which he played no part, Judge Julia Smith Gibbons wrote Oct. 31 for the court, affirming dismissal of the lawsuit ( Alexander v. Eagle Mfg. Co., LLC , 6th Cir., No. 16-6604, unpublished, dismissal affirmed 10/31/17 ).

Refusing to violate a law is precisely what Alexander did, his lawyer, Kenneth Hawley with Hawley Law Co. LPA, in Cincinnati, told Bloomberg Law Oct. 31. “He refused to violate the law in the course of his employment and he was fired because of it,” Hawley said. “He could, with a wink and a nod, say OK, or he can do what he did, which is refuse to sign off on those things.”

There is a whistleblower statute for public employees, but private employees “are left with Kentucky’s default rule, which allows them to be fired ‘for good cause, for no cause, or for a cause that some might view as morally indefensible,’” Gibbons said. The only exception to the rule is a legal tradition against terminations that violate public policy, she said.

Judge Bernice B. Donald joined the majority’s unpublished opinion.

Dissent Eyes Worker’s Participation

Dissenting, Judge John M. Rogers said that if Alexander hadn’t reported his co-workers, he would’ve been asked to participate in their misconduct when they forwarded him engine components on the production line, or faced the possibility of discipline for refusing to do his job.

The lower court denied Alexander’s request to amend his complaint. The appeals court affirmed the denial because he didn’t include details about how he might revise it in a way that wouldn’t result in dismissal.

Eagle Manufacturing’s lawyer, Kasey Bond with Keating Muething & Klekamp PLL in Cincinnati, was unavailable to comment Oct. 31.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jon Steingart in Washington at jsteingart@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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