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Answering a certified question for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, the Virginia Supreme Court said March 1 that an at-will employee cannot maintain a common-law action for wrongful termination based on the public policy embodied in the state’s obstruction of justice statute. Rowan v. Tractor Supply Co., No. 011732. The employee, Linda Rowan, claimed she was fired by Tractor Supply for pursuing criminal charges against a manager who had twisted her arm and pushed her against a desk when she expressed suspicions that he and other workers were embezzling. Rowan was fired in February 2000, allegedly for failing to yield to repeated demands that she drop the charges. The manager, Jerry Michael Snider, was convicted of assault and battery the next month. Rowan argued that the law gave her a right to be free from intimidation when pressing criminal charges and participating in the legal process. Disagreeing, the high court said the goal of the statute was not to protect individuals from intimidation, but, rather, “to protect the public from a flawed legal system due to impaired prosecution of criminals.” J.H. Verkerke, an employment law professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, said Virginia’s Supreme Court has been “surprisingly expansive in recognizing public policy tort claims — but this case signals its willingness to police the boundaries” so the employment-at-will doctrine is not displaced altogether. Verkerke said the court made two moves common in public policy tort cases. First, it pigeonholed the claims into identifiable categories. The decision states that an employee must show one of three things: that she was terminated for refusal to commit a crime, that the employer violated a public policy explicitly stated in a statute and the employee was a member of the class directly entitled to the protection enunciated by that policy, or that the employer violated a public policy implicit in a statute granting the employee a specific right to enforce that policy. Second, the court concluded that Rowan’s claim did not fit into any of those categories by contrasting the difference between personal disputes and public interests. Verkerke said many jurisdictions restrict public policy torts this way. But, he said, it is difficult to draw the line and the distinction here was not very persuasive. Tractor Supply’s counsel, James M. Johnson, an attorney with the Charlottesville, Va., office of Richmond, Va.-based McGuireWoods, said, “It is a worthy goal to protect individuals from intimidation, which may result in better prosecution of criminals. But there are thousands of statutes, so public policies can only be enforced when employers are given adequate notice. The court has listed three instances when the policy is so clear that a lawsuit is allowed.” He said it may be better if the plaintiff were protected here, but that is up to the legislature. “This is a lot of double talk,” said Rowan’s lawyer, Terry N. Grimes of Roanoke, Va. “The goal of obstruction of justice, on its face, is to prevent intimidation. This is open season on crime victims trying to keep their jobs.”

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