Kan. SC rules on retaliatory discharge claims

Jessica M. Karmasek Jun. 2, 2011, 3:31pm


TOPEKA, Kan. (Legal Newsline) - The Kansas Supreme Court last week ruled that a lawsuit may be brought against an employer for retaliatory discharge when an employee claims he or she was fired for filing a claim under the state's Wage Payment Act.

The Court, in its May 26 opinion, reversed and remanded a decision by the Phillips District Court dismissing the lawsuit against Husky Hogs LLC. Husky Hogs is a hog and pig farming company located in Long Island, Kan.

Robert L. Campbell was an at-will employee with Husky Hogs for about one year when he filed a complaint with the Kansas Department of Labor alleging the company was not paying him as required by the KWPA.

Campbell was fired one business day after the labor department acknowledged receiving his claim. Campbell then filed a lawsuit in district court alleging Husky Hogs terminated him for pursuing his statutory rights under the wage payment act. Husky Hogs denied the allegation.

The company filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings. It argued Kansas had not previously recognized a retaliatory discharge claim for alleging KWPA violations and no public policy reasons existed for allowing such a claim now.

Campbell conceded the legal issue was one of first impression, but he argued Kansas public policy strongly favors wage earners and compliance with the statutory mandates, so his claim should qualify as an exception sometimes permitted at common law.

The district court granted Husky Hogs' motion. It held Campbell's termination did not violate Kansas public policy, even though it was required to assume the discharge resulted from filing the disputed wage claim.

The court also determined that even if Campbell had stated a valid common-law retaliatory discharge claim, it was supplanted by the KWPA because the act provides Campbell an adequate substitute remedy.

Campbell filed an appeal with the appeals court, which transferred the case to the state's high court.

The Court, in its 16-page ruling, said the lower court erred in its decision. Justice Dan Biles authored the Court's opinion.

"While these statutory remedies may adequately compensate Campbell for his unpaid wage claim, it is difficult to see how they adequately compensate him for wrongful termination or provide a better deterrent for the retaliatory misconduct alleged," the Court wrote.

Retaliatory discharge is a tort, it explained. A tort is a breach of duty imposed by law.

"Under common law, Campbell may seek future lost wages, any other actual damages, and applicable remedies for pain and suffering, as well as punitive damages," the Court wrote.

"This court has previously criticized the allocation of a common-law action to an administrative agency. In this case, we hold the KWPA is not an adequate substitute remedy for Campbell's common-law retaliatory discharge claim."

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by e-mail at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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