In Dorshkind v. Oak Park Place of Dubuque II, LLC, the Iowa Supreme Court found that terminating an employee after the employee's internal complaint regarding violation of Iowa administration rules violated public policy and constituted a wrongful termination.
Oak Park is an assisted living facility in Dubuque. It is certified as a dementia-specific assisted living program, which requires it to comply with certain provisions of the Iowa Code and Iowa Administration Rules. One such rule requires direct care staff to complete dementia-specific training. In July 2008, the Department of Inspection and Appeals (the department in charge of enforcing the rules and regulations) did an unannounced inspection of the facility. During the inspection, the Dorshkind witnessed what she believed to be certain supervisors falsifying state-mandated training documents for the dementia program.
Another co-worker, Denise Schiltz, was a witness to the forgery and immediately quit her employment with Oak Park. After her separation, she lodged an anonymous complaint with the DIA, which commenced an additional investigation into Oak Park resulting in fines and penalties.
Iowa is an at-will employment state, but certain exceptions exist, including terminations in violation of a stated public policy. To be successful in such a claim the employee must show (1) a clearly defined public policy that protects the employee's activity; (2) termination of the employee undermines the public policy; (3) the employee engaged in the protected activity and it was the reason for termination; and (4) no other overriding business justification for the discharge exists.
Regardless of the dissenting opinion, it is clear that employers must be aware that internal whistle-blowing arising from statute or administrative law (not business practices or policies) may be protected under the public policy exception to the at-will doctrine. As with any termination, documentation is important as well as careful consideration of any protected activity. Before terminating an employee (or taking any adverse action), an employer should now be considering whether the employee has lodged any internal complaints that could be construed as whistle-blowing.