The Appellate Division’s unpublished opinion in Williams v The MLB Network provides a lesson in the scope of the Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA) and the extent to which employers may control the conduct of employees outside of the workplace.
The case arose out of alleged conduct by former professional major league pitcher Mitch “the Wild Thing” Williams, including the use of profanity, while coaching his son’s tournament baseball game. As a result of the media reports relating to Williams’ conduct leading to his ejection from the game and his reaction to the ejection, MLB Network sought a modification of his employment agreement which, among other things, would have required Williams not to attend youth sporting events and not to use social media without network approval of the contents. Williams refused, and he was terminated for alleged violation of the “morals clause” of his existing contract.
Williams sued, including claims for breach of his employment contract and violation of CEPA. The CEPA claim was dismissed on the ground that he could not have reasonably believed that the conditions of the modification violated law. However the jury found that he did not violate the “morals clause” of the contract and awarded him $1,565,333.34 in stipulated damages. The Appellate Division affirmed.
Dismissal of the CEPA claim was found appropriate because the clause did not violate any law or public policy. The court held that the contract revision would not have infringed on his right to act as “primary caretaker” for his children. The discharge, following his decision not to sign the contract modification, related to his behavior at the tournament, not the desire to coach his son’s team or attend his games. Williams also claimed that the proposed restriction on use of social media infringed on his constitutional “right to autonomous self-expression,” and right of privacy, but the court held those rights did not preclude contractual provisions which prohibit or regulate conduct which “conflicts with the employer’s legitimate interests.”
It appears that the network lacked proof of conduct sufficient to discharge Williams, but that morality clauses in employment contracts are justified, at least when public figure employees, who should set a “good example” to the general public, are involved; and that media reports about undignified conduct can justify employers’ endeavors to place limitations on the conduct of at least public figure employees as a condition of continued employment.
We believe that it is generally inappropriate for employers to control, or be able to discipline, an employee for non-criminal conduct outside the workplace. And we are not sure the scope of law permitting morality clauses in contracts or when specific limitations can be placed in an employment contract. And public policy on the subject is debatable. Nevertheless, we support the view that endeavors should be made to permit discipline, including economic penalties and termination, in the workplace when public figures, like athletes who should serve as role models in our society, conduct themselves in a way which can fairly be said to promote inappropriate or unlawful behavior.