A South Carolina worker who claims he was fired for asking whether his company had shortchanged him out of a bonus he was due can sue his former employer for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy, a federal judge has ruled.
Sean Baker is a former manager for the Greenville and Spartanburg office of Response Team 1, a property reconstruction firm. In 2015 he signed a compensation agreement entitling him to certain bonus payments if his office hit its revenue targets for the year.
After the company’s number-crunchers determined that Baker had missed his benchmark for 2015, he asked for documentation of the company’s calculations. Just a few weeks after receiving a letter from Baker’s attorney pressing the issue, the company eliminated his position.
Baker sued, alleging wrongful discharge, breach of contract, and violation of the South Carolina Payment of Wages Act. The company moved to dismiss all of the claims, but on Sept. 6 U.S. District Judge Cameron McGowan Currie ruled that Baker could move ahead under those theories.
Baker alleged that he had been a highly productive employee, and that the record contained “substantial evidence [that] management and human resources were ‘irritated and even hostile’ regarding the requests for information and past due wages,” and so a reasonable jury could conclude he was terminated in retaliation for his inquiries about the bonuses, and in violation of public policy.
Workers in South Carolina generally do not have an easy go of it when alleging that a firing violated public policy, but Currie noted a 2013 ruling from the state’s Court of Appeals holding that a violation of the SCPWA is a violation of a clear mandate of public policy, and concluded that Baker had raised a bona fide dispute as to whether he had been denied payment that was owed to him.
Currie wrote that while Baker hadn’t yet filed suit at the time of his sacking, his attorney’s letter had specifically mentioned the SCPWA, and so it was clear that Response Team 1 was on notice of the possibility of a lawsuit regarding allegedly unpaid amounts.
“The timing, and the fact that only Plaintiff’s position was eliminated, raise a genuine issue of material fact precluding summary judgment as to whether he was terminated as a result of threatening legal process to recover allegedly unpaid bonuses and commissions,” Currie wrote.
Currie did dismiss Baker’s claims for triple damages and attorneys’ fees under SCPWA, saying that he had presented no evidence that Response Team 1 had willfully or intentionally failed to pay any wages. She similarly dismissed a claim for breach of contract by a fraudulent act.
Chuck Ormond of Ormond Dunn in Columbia represented Baker. Ormond declined to comment on the ruling.
Michael Henthorne of Ogletree Deakins in Columbia represented Response Team 1. He could not be reached for comment on the decision.
The 20-page decision is Baker v. Response Team 1 Holdings, LLC (Lawyers Weekly No. 002-195-18). An opinion digest is available online at sclawyersweekly.com.
Follow David Donovan on Twitter @SCLWDonovan