Virginia Extends Wrongful Discharge Liability to Individual Supervisors

In a November 2012 decision, the Virginia Supreme Court holds that supervisors may be individually liable for tort claims of wrongful discharge.  See VanBuren v. Grubb, (Virginia Supreme Court 2012).  The Fourth Circuit originally certified the issue to the Virginia Supreme Court, questioning whether supervisors who participate in firing decisions can be held liable under State tort claims of wrongful discharge.  Under Virginia common law, a company or individual who discharges an employee in violation of public policy may be liable for their conduct.  However, the tort claim still has a relatively narrow application in the world of at-will employment.  First, the public policy must be express, such as the grant of a specific statutory right or conduct that is itself illegal.   Second, the tort cannot be used to frame most discrimination and retaliation complaints, which remain limited to the remedies provided by the Virginia Human Rights Act or other Federal laws.  In VanBuren’s case, the plaintiff asserted that she was terminated by her supervising physician after she refused to engage in an adultery, an illegal act under Virginia law.