United States District Court, D. Colorado
VICTOR CEJKA, JAMES WALKER, STEVEN WASCHER, and JAMIE LYTLE, Plaintiffs,
VECTRUS SYSTEMS CORPORATION, f/k/a Exelis Systems Corporation, Defendant.
ORDER ON DEFENDANT'S RENEWED MOTION FOR JUDGMENT
AS A MATTER OF LAW AS TO PLAINTIFFS' FIRST CLAIM FOR
WRONGFUL DISCHARGE IN VIOLATION OF PUBLIC POLICY UNDER
COLORADO LAW [ECF NO. 317]
Michael E. Hegarty United States Magistrate Judge.
initiated this employment action on October 30, 2015, against
their former employer, Defendant Vectrus Systems Corp.
(“Vectrus”), alleging that they suffered adverse
employment actions in retaliation for reporting to the United
States military what they believed to be conduct by Defendant
that adversely affected security at Bagram Air Force Base in
Afghanistan. This case was tried to a jury for common law
retaliatory termination (Claim I) (all Plaintiffs) and
violation of 10 U.S.C. § 2409, the Department of Defense
whistleblower statute (Claim II) (Plaintiff Walker). The jury
found for Defendant on Plaintiff Cross's claim and for
the remaining Plaintiffs under both the common law claims
(all Plaintiffs) and the statutory claim (Plaintiff Walker).
In the interim, Plaintiff Cross has settled with Defendant.
Defendant seeks judgment as a matter of law on the four
prevailing Plaintiffs' claims for retaliatory discharge
in violation of public policy, on the ground that this
doctrine applies only to “at-will” employees and
these Plaintiffs were all contract employees. See
ECF No. 317. Because I find that a wrongful discharge claim
is not so limited, I deny Defendant's motion.
Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b) provides that “[n]o later
than 28 days after the entry of judgment . . . the movant may
file a renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law . . .
.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(b). In analyzing a Rule 50(b)
motion, courts should construe the evidence in the record in
a light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Tyler v.
RE/MAX Mountain States, Inc., 232 F.3d 808, 812 (10th
Cir. 2000). Courts must not “weigh evidence, judge
witness credibility, or challenge the factual conclusions of
the jury.” Deters v. Equifax Credit Info. Servs.,
Inc., 202 F.3d 1262, 1268 (10th Cir. 2000).
“Judgment as a matter of law is appropriate ‘only
if the evidence points but one way and is susceptible to no
reasonable inferences which may support the opposing
party's position.'” Tyler, 232 F.3d at
812 (quoting Finley v. United States, 82 F.3d 966,
968 (10th Cir. 1996)). Motions under Rule 50(b) “should
be cautiously and sparingly granted.” Lucas v.
Dover Corp., Norris Div., 857 F.2d 1397, 1400 (10th Cir.
1988) (quoting EEOC v. Prudential Fed. Sav. & Loan
Ass'n, 763 F.2d 1166, 1171 (10th Cir. 1985)).
of background, Plaintiffs entered into employment agreements
with Defendant. See, e.g., Pls.' Trial Ex. 56.
The agreements permitted Defendant to terminate Plaintiffs
“for convenience a[t] any time, provided that thirty
(30) days written notice has been provided.”
Id. at 56-008. The agreements also permitted
Defendant to terminate Plaintiffs “for cause”
upon a showing of eighteen different acts. Id.
Defendant's motion requires me to determine whether the
existence of Plaintiffs' employment contracts precludes
their state law wrongful termination claims.
that a claim for wrongful termination in violation of public
policy under Colorado law is not strictly limited to
instances when the plaintiff is purely an
“at-will” employee. While it is true that
Colorado case law frequently couches this claim as an
exception to at-will employment, a more detailed study of
precedent establishes that the exception will, in the proper
circumstance, afford a cause of action to employees whose
term is memorialized in writing.
Colorado Supreme Court first recognized a claim for
termination in violation of public policy in Martin
Marietta Corp. v. Lorenz, 823 P.2d 100 (Colo. 1992).
That opinion contains important analysis that sheds light on
what the court was trying to accomplish.
the Martin Marietta court recognized the judicial
trend in America that “the at-will employment doctrine
implicates not only an employer's discretion in hiring
and firing but also the important interest of the employee in
holding on to a job and society's interest in fixing a
proper balance between the two.” Id. at 105.
The newly minted “public-policy exception”
“was intended to convey ‘that principle of law
which holds that no citizen can lawfully do that which has a
tendency to be injurious to the public or against the public
good.' . . . ‘It would be obnoxious to the
interests of the state and contrary to public policy and
sound morality to allow an employer to discharge any
employee, whether the employment be for a designated or
unspecified duration, on the ground that the employee
declined to commit perjury, an act specifically enjoined by
statute.'” Id. (quoting Petermann v.
Int'l Bhd. of Teamsters Local Union 396, 344 P.2d
25, 27 (Cal. Dist. Ct. App. 1959)). Here, Plaintiffs'
employment was for a designated duration.
adopting such a doctrine for this state, the Colorado Supreme
Court noted that “[t]he essence of the public-policy
exception is that an employee will have a cognizable claim
for wrongful discharge ‘if the discharge of the
employee contravenes a clear mandate of public
policy.'” Id. at 107 (quoting Thompson
v. St. Regis Paper Co., 685 P.2d 1081, 1089 (Wash.
1984)). The operative paragraph that adopts the doctrine
states as follows:
In light of Colorado's long-standing rule that a contract
violative of public policy is unenforceable, it is axiomatic
that a contractual condition, such as the terminability
condition of an at-will employment contract, should also be
deemed unenforceable when violative of public policy. There
is no question that the manifest public policy of this state
is that neither an employer nor an employee should be
permitted to knowingly perpetrate a fraud or deception on the
federal or state government. A corollary of this policy is
that an employee, whether at-will or otherwise,
should not be put to the choice of either obeying an
employer's order to violate the law or losing his or her
Id. at 109 (emphasis added). Thus, the court made
clear that an employee has a claim for wrongful discharge
when the employer's termination of the employee is
contrary to public policy, regardless of whether that
employee's contract is “at-will or otherwise,
” id., or for “a designated or
unspecified duration, ” id. at 105.
cases decided since Martin Marietta have expressed a
clear trend toward affording employees ...