Heard September 23, 2014.
ON CERTIFICATION FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF SOUTH CAROLINA. Richard M. Gergel, United States District Judge. Appellate Case No. 2014-000073.
Allan R. Holmes, Sr. and Timothy O. Lewis, both of Gibbs & Holmes, of Charleston, for Plaintiff.
Benjamin P. Glass and Luci L. Nelson, both of Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak, & Stewart, P.C., of Charleston, for Defendants.
JUSTICE HEARN. TOAL, C.J., BEATTY and KITTREDGE, JJ, concur. PLEICONES, J., concurring in a separate opinion.
[411 S.C. 242] HEARN, JUSTICE:
This certified question from the federal district
court asks us to delineate the parameters of the public policy exception to the
doctrine of at-will employment. Specifically, this question requires us to
consider whether the public policy exception is broad enough to permit a cause
of action in tort for employees who are terminated for reporting a suspected
crime, in this case, shoplifting. We hold it does not.
The facts are drawn from the district court's certification order. Behrooz Taghivand was the manager of a Rite Aid store in a high crime area of North Charleston, South Carolina. While on duty, Taghivand observed a patron acting strangely and milling around the store with no apparent purpose. The patron stopped briefly in the section directly in front of the cashier, selected a few items, and made a purchase. After the patron checked out, the cashier told Taghivand that when the patron entered the store, he was carrying a bag that appeared to be empty but now had items in it.
Taghivand instructed the cashier to call the police. An officer arrived at the scene and gathered together the items the patron claimed he purchased from the store, and Taghivand confirmed these as belonging to the patron. The officer also searched the patron's bag, and found it contained only dirty clothes.
Taghivand was terminated effective that day, and was informed the incident was the reason for his termination. As a result, Taghivand filed this action against Rite Aid Corporation, Eckerd Corporation d/b/a Rite Aid, and Steve Smith in federal court for wrongful termination; the defendants moved to dismiss. After finding that South Carolina law was not clear on the issue raised by the motion to dismiss, the district court certified this question.
Under the public policy exception to the at-will employment doctrine in South Carolina, does an at-will employee have a cause of action in tort for wrongful termination where [411 S.C. 243] (1) the employee, a store manager, reasonably suspects that criminal activity, specifically, shoplifting, has occurred on the employer's premises, (2) the employee, acting in good faith, reports the suspected criminal activity to law enforcement, ...