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Cejka v. Vectrus Systems Corp.

United States District Court, D. Colorado

October 9, 2018

VICTOR CEJKA, JAMES WALKER, STEVEN WASCHER, and JAMIE LYTLE, Plaintiffs,
v.
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.

         Plaintiffs 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.

         Here, 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.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         Federal 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)).

         ANALYSIS[1]

         By way 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.

         I find 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.

         The 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.

         First, 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.

         In 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 job.

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.

         Moreover, cases decided since Martin Marietta have expressed a clear trend toward affording employees ...


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