Today the Kansas Supreme Court expanded the recognized exceptions to employment at will by ruling that a claim for retaliatory discharge exists when an employee is fired for filing a wage claim under the Kansas Wage Payment Act (KWPA). The employee, who worked for a pig-farming company in Long Island, Kansas, alleged he was fired for trying to bring home more bacon by filing a complaint with the Kansas Department of Labor (KDOL) claiming the company was not paying him as required by the KWPA. The company said the allegation was hogwash and asked the court to dismiss the case. The district court agreed with the company and hamstrung the employee's lawsuit, ruling that even assuming he was fired because he filed a KWPA wage claim, this was not a recognized exception to the employment-at-will rule.
The employee, perhaps feeling he had been casting pearls before swine in the district court, appealed. The Kansas Supreme Court explained that Kansas courts permit the common-law tort of retaliatory discharge as a limited exception to the at-will employment doctrine when it is necessary to protect a strongly held state public policy from being undermined. The Kansas Supreme Court has previously endorsed public policy exceptions in four circumstances: (1) exercising rights under the Kansas Workers’ Compensation Act; (2) filing a claim under the Federal Employers Liability Act; (3) whistleblowing (good-faith reporting of an employer’s or coworker’s violation of the law pertaining to public health, safety, or welfare); and (4) exercising a public employee's First Amendment right to free speech on an issue of public concern. The Court reasoned that the KWPA—which requires employers to promptly pay wages and benefits, controls and limits wage withholding, permits specific damages and penalties, and prohibits waivers of the rights it creates—“embeds within its provisions a public policy of protecting wage earners' rights to their unpaid wages and benefits.” The Court thus ruled that it is necessary to allow a retaliatory discharge claim when an employer fires a worker who seeks to exercise KWPA rights, because “[t]o do otherwise would seriously undermine the public policy and the protections afforded by the KWPA.”
The Court reversed the order of dismissal and sent the case back to the district court, where the employee will still have to prove the company fired him because he exercised his rights under the KWPA, which the company denies. The case is Campbell v. Husky Hogs, L.L.C.