In January, the South Dakota Supreme Court issued Harvey v. Regional Health Network, Inc., 2018 SD 3, 906 N.W.2d 382, wherein it affirmed summary judgment for the employer and dismissed the terminated employee’s claims for slander, malicious prosecution, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress (I/NIED), wrongful termination, breach of contract, and punitive damages. Harvey, who worked at a nursing home, claimed her termination was premised upon false reports of resident abuse by two coworkers who wanted her fired. She also argued the employer should be held liable for failing to conduct a thorough investigation of the co-worker reports, both before her termination and when the employer reviewed her termination via an internal grievance process, and for causing her to be criminal prosecuted for felony elder abuse. The case is instructive to the practitioner and employer on issues involving: (1) internal investigations, (2) mandatory reporting, and (3) employment policies:
1. Investigations/Decisions: Upon receiving a verbal report of employee misconduct (hitting a resident), the employer obtained written statements from two coworkers (one of whom had a good performance record, the other did not). Other coworkers were not interviewed. In recommending termination, a supervisor noted her own observation of other behavior consistent with the incident reported by the two coworkers. As applied to the I/NIED claims, the Court held that a failed or insufficient investigation did not rise to the level of outrageous conduct, even if the investigation was lacking. Similarly, the slander claim failed because there was no evidence that the speakers (supervisors and leadership) entertained serious doubt as to the truth of the publication (hitting a resident). Harvey is instructive to employers and practitioners particularly as it provides guidance on taking care to conduct sufficient internal investigations and, when possible, having the ultimate disciplinary decision being made by an individual who is not a witness to the conduct at issue in the investigation.
2. Mandatory Reporting: Harvey involved the employer making a mandatory report of alleged elder abuse to the Department of Health. Not only did the report form the basis of Harvey’s slander claim, but she also brought a claim of malicious prosecution (involving the prosecutor’s later decision to pursue criminal charges against Ms. Harvey). The employer did not report as quickly as required by the applicable reporting laws and did not comply with the Department’s requests for supporting documentation, resulting in a Department audit of the employer policies. Nonetheless, the Court upheld dismissal of the malicious prosecution claim, finding that the employer merely reported the conduct and allowed the authorities to do their jobs. Harvey reminds employers and practitioners to be mindful to (a) timely transmit any required disclosure; (b) provide all information learned in their own investigation; and (c) not advocate or otherwise get overly involved in the independent decision of an investigating agency or authority.
3. Policies: In Harvey, Court engaged in a lengthy analysis of the employer’s post-termination grievance procedure and whether the alleged failure to follow the procedure created a breach of contract claim. The Court ultimately answered this question in the negative. Significant to its holding was a review of the employer’s written policies, including: (a) express statements that the employment was at-will and that the terms in the handbook should not be regarded as promises for employment and do not create any contract; (b) reservation of the right to terminate for any reason with or without notice; (c) not having an “exclusive” list of reasons for which an employee could be terminated; (d) not having a mandatory progressive discipline policy; and (e) a grievance procedure that did not restrict the employer from terminating at will and did not require the employer to review the termination decision to make sure the policies/procedures were consistently applied. Employers and practitioners are encouraged to keep these concepts in mind when drafting or revising employment policies.
Also notable in Harvey was the Court’s refusal to expand the whistle-blower wrongful termination cause of action to an employee’s report to supervisors of concerns that her coworkers’ performance was “unsafe” and/or her request to place security cameras in the facility. On this issue, the Court noted existing law limit whistleblowing activity to “the reporting of unlawful or criminal conduct to a supervisor or outside agency”, and it noted to expand the law to include the cited report would wrongfully eviscerate the at-will doctrine in favor of judicial management of the employee/management relationship.
Recommendation is made for review of the Harvey decision in its entirety, as it provides a great analysis of multiple tort and contract claims that an aggrieved employee may seek to bring against an employer.