Does an Employee's Right of Self-Defense Override an Employer's Workplace Rules?

Wal-Mart employees allegedly violated company rules prohibiting them from approaching a criminal suspect possessing a weapon and also requiring the employees to withdraw from a violent situation. The employees were fired and sued in the federal District Court of Utah, asserting that this termination violated their right of self-defense (Ray v. Wal-Mart).

While Utah is an employment-at-will state, broadly allowing terminations of employment, Utah recognizes public policy exceptions to employment-at-will. The Utah Supreme Court has previously indicated four public policy exceptions to employment-at-will: 1. refusing to commit an illegal act such as violating antitrust laws; 2. performing a public obligation such as jury duty; 3. exercising a legal right such as filing a workers' compensation claim; and 4. reporting an employer's criminal activity to a public authority. If self-defense comes under the third category, then an employer could not fire an employee for exercising this right. A jury trial might be necessary to determine the facts in a particular situation.

Public policy is sometimes directly stated in a state's constitution or statutes and sometimes created by judicial decisions. It functions as guide in resolving unique court cases or as a limitation on activities that violate its dictates. It can be at times an elusive and vague concept. Actions that violate public policy are unlawful.

Utah recognizes the right of self-defense and Utah additionally has a "Stand Your Ground" statute. The federal District Court asked the Utah Supreme Court to answer the following question: "Is the right of self-defense a substantially public policy exception to the at-will employment doctrine, which provides a basis for a wrongful discharge action?" The Utah Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments addressing this question.

The West Virginia Supreme Court in 2001 wrote that there was a public policy exception to employment-at-will "whereby an employee may defend him/herself against lethal imminent danger" (Feliciano v. 7-Eleven). While other courts have struggled with the issue of an employee's right of self-defense, West Virginia currently provides the clearest precedent.

An employer has the right to set workplace rules and may not want a potentially violent situation to escalate due to an employee's confrontation with a suspect. Employees argue that they are required to react immediately to an unfolding situation. While not part of the current Utah case, the legal issues surrounding firearms in the workplace are still nationally in flux. The Utah Supreme Court's answer to the current question will have implications in related situations.

The federal District Court also denied that the Wal-Mart employees had an implied contract. As is typically true when individuals assert the existence of an implied contract, the Court stated that there was no implied contract. The employees argued that Wal-Mart employees were sent through a coaching program, not fired, and they had been told that employees were only fired for gross misconduct. However, official Wal-Mart written documents consistently stated employment-at-will, that there were no express or implied contracts, and that disciplinary action could include termination. There were no references to a gross misconduct standard. Furthermore, the Court stated that handbook references to the "Wal-Mart family" and to "stay and grow" were too vague to create a contract. At best, the employees only had a legally insufficient subjective belief that they were not subject to employment-at-will.

As is always the case, employment legal issues require one to consult experienced legal counsel.