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DEITERS v. HOME DEPOT U.S.A.

December 22, 1993

RONALD DEITERS, Plaintiff,
v.
HOME DEPOT U.S.A.,INC., Defendant.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: ROBERT L. ECHOLS

 Presently pending before this Court is Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment to which Plaintiff has responded. For the reasons more fully outlined herein, the Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED. This case is accordingly DISMISSED.

 In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, this Court must construe the evidence produced in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, drawing all justifiable inferences in his or her favor. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255, 91 L. Ed. 2d 202, 106 S. Ct. 2505 (1986). A party may obtain summary judgment if the evidentiary material on file shows "that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56. The moving party bears the burden of satisfying the court that the standards of Rule 56 have been met. See Martin v. Kelley, 803 F.2d 236, 239 n.4 (6th Cir. 1986). The ultimate question to be addressed is whether there exists any genuine issue of material fact which is disputed. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. at 248. If so, summary judgment dismissal is inappropriate.

 Plaintiff is a former employee of Home Depot, the Defendant. Home Depot has discharged him on two separate occasions. After the first discharge, Plaintiff was reinstated at his own request. However, he was reinstated at a lesser level of responsibility. Plaintiff brought a state court action against Home Depot for wrongful discharge, which was dismissed on Defendant's motion for summary judgment. Plaintiff filed a notice of appeal in that case and, two days later, was again discharged.

 It is the second discharge which is the subject of the instant lawsuit. Although Plaintiff was an employee at will, he sues Home Depot for retaliatory discharge, claiming that he was discharged because he had appealed the judgment of the first lawsuit and that such discharge violates the "public policy" of Tennessee. Plaintiff also claims that his discharge was additionally calculated to prevent Plaintiff from receiving certain employee benefits which would have vested within approximately five months. Therefore, Plaintiff contends that his dismissal also violates § 501 of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act ("ERISA"), 29 U.S.C. § 1140. *fn1"

 Defendant responds that the discharge was in no way motivated by Plaintiff's decision to appeal the summary judgment dismissal or by a desire to deprive Plaintiff of employee benefits. Instead, Defendant contends that Plaintiff was discharged for secretly tape recording two meetings with management personnel.

 Clearly, there is a genuine dispute of material fact with regard to the reason for the discharge. However, in its Motion for Summary Judgment, Defendant asks this Court to assume for purposes of the motion that Plaintiff's discharge was motivated by his decision to appeal the judgment of the first case. Defendant contends that even under those facts, Plaintiff states no actionable claim because the dismissal does not fall within the narrow public policy exception to Tennessee's at-will rule. With regard to the allegation that the discharge violated § 501 of ERISA, Defendant contends that Plaintiff has submitted insufficient evidence to withstand this summary judgment motion.

 In Tennessee, a contract of employment for an indefinite term is generally a contract at will and may be terminated by either the employer or the employee at any time. Nelson Trabue, Inc. v. Professional Management-Automotive, Inc., 589 S.W.2d 661, 663 (Tenn. 1979); Little v. Fed. Container Corp., 61 Tenn. App. 26, 452 S.W.2d 875, 877 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1969). This means that in the absence of an express contract of employment, an employee may be discharged for good reason, for bad reason, or for no reason at all. Clanton v. Cain-Sloan Co., 677 S.W.2d 441, 443 (Tenn. 1984); Whittaker v. Care-More, Inc., 621 S.W.2d 395, 396 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1981). It has already been determined that Plaintiff was an at-will employee of the Defendant. Deiters v. Home Depot Inc., 1992 Tenn. App. LEXIS 437, 1992 WL 113447 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1992).

 Tennessee courts have recognized a limited exception to the at-will doctrine. Clanton v. Cain-Sloan Co., 677 S.W.2d 441 (Tenn. 1984). In that case, the plaintiff sued for retaliatory discharge, claiming that he was fired for filing a workers' compensation claim. Id. at 444-445. Tennessee's Supreme Court held that the creation of a cause of action for retaliatory discharge was necessary to prevent the destruction of the important public policy behind the workers' compensation system. The Court reasoned that the Tennessee legislature necessarily intended that no employer should be permitted to avoid its statutory duty under the workers' compensation statute by merely discharging the employee. Id.

 However, this public policy exception is a narrow one, and must be applied sparingly, so that the exception will not consume the rule. Chism v. Mid-South Milling Co., 762 S.W.2d 552, 556 (Tenn. 1988). This is illustrated by another case in which the Tennessee Supreme Court held that an at-will employee could not maintain a retaliatory discharge claim against her former employer where she alleged that she was fired because she testified in an unemployment compensation case involving another employee. Harney v. Meadowbrook Nursing Center, 784 S.W.2d 921 (Tenn. 1990). The court explained:

 
Clanton did not create a new exception to the [employment-at-will] rule. The Court merely recognized that implicit within the provisions of [the Tennessee Workers' Compensation Act] a cause of action existed to prevent an employer from utilizing retaliatory discharge as a device to defeat the rights of an employee under the Workers' Compensation Law. The decision was not intended as a license for the courts to enlarge on the employee-at-will rule or create other exceptions to public policy or the common-law in the absence of some constitutional or legislative precedent.

 Id. at 922.

 Indeed, in Watson v. Cleveland Chair Co., 789 S.W.2d 538 (Tenn. 1989), the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed a lower court's expansion of the public policy exception, explaining that such expansion is a legislative matter.

 
All questions of policy are for the determination of the legislature and not for the courts. . . . Where courts intrude into their decrees their opinion on questions of public policy, they in effect constitute the judicial tribunals as lawmaking bodies in usurpation of the powers of the legislature.

 Id. at 540-41 (citing Cavender v. Hewitt, 145 Tenn. 471, 239 S.W. 767, 768 (Tenn. 1921)). Tennessee courts, steadfastly upholding the employment at-will doctrine, have recognized that

 
there must be protection from substantial impairment of the very legitimate interests of the employer in hiring and retaining the most qualified personnel available or the very foundation of ...

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