In 2003, Timothy Blakeley was hired as the Chief of Police of Taylortown, a small community in Moore County, North Carolina. He soon became engaged in a dispute with the town’s mayor when he brought it to the Town Council’s attention that the town’s use of an ATV on the public streets was not legal. He did not drop the issue as instructed, but went directly to the mayor with additional information regarding the illegal use of the ATV. Since Blakeley did not follow the proper chain of command by going to the Police Commissioner first he received a written reprimand for not following the chain of command.
In 2006, the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) contacted Blakely about its ongoing investigation of possible corruption within Taylortown government, which led to the indictment of the town’s mayor. These charges were eventually dropped. Blakeley's relationship with the Town Council and the mayor became much worse after he advised them, with the SBI’s approval, of his involvement in the SBI’s investigation.
Also during this time frame it was alleged that the Town Council and the mayor began asking Chief Blakeley to provide ongoing information about his department’s investigation of the town’s drug problems. Blakeley refused to discuss specifics of ongoing cases or to identify confidential informants. In 2007, Chief Blakeley was fired. He had significant difficulty finding new permanent employment in the law enforcement field, though he was able to find some temporary work, including advising US forces in Afghanistan on policing. At the time of the trial in 2011, Blakeley did not have full-time permanent job despite applying to a large number of positions.
The jury found that Chief Blakeley’s refusal to disclose information about ongoing criminal investigations and the identity of confidential informants to the City Council, which would have violated North Carolina law, was a substantial factor in Blakeley’s termination. They also found that the Town would not have terminated the chief if he had agreed to violate these laws, and that he had damages of $291,000, of which he was entitled to recover only $100,000 due to having earned $191,000 through other employment during the period between his termination and the trial. The court also granted Blakeley’s motion for additional lost wages going forward, or “front pay” instead of being reinstated to his old job.
What Happened On Appeal?
Taylortown appealed this verdict. The only practical victory they obtained was a small reduction in the total award. For our purposes, the key points are that (1) the Court of Appeals found that there was evidence to support the jury’s verdict of wrongful discharge in violation of public policy and (2) a wrongfully terminated employee is entitled to claim non-monetary damages such as negligent and intentional infliction of emotional
First, “[a]n employer wrongfully discharges an at-will employee if the termination is done for an unlawful reason or purpose that contravenes public policy." Garner v. Rentenbach Constructors Inc., 350 N.C. 567, 571, 515 S.E.2d 438, 441 (1999)). Here, the police chief would have violated State law designed to protect confidential informants and to protect ongoing criminal investigations if he had given the Town Council the information for which he was pressed. The Court agreed that there was evidence to support the jury’s conclusion that it was this refusal to violate these laws and the public policy behind these laws was at least part of why Blakely was fired. Thus, the Court of Appeals upheld the jury’s finding of wrongful termination in violation of public policy.
Second, the Court of Appeals noted that exactly what type of damages were available for wrongful termination had not been decided in North Carolina. Taylortown argued that the employee could not claim damages for emotional distress or lost wages. However, the cases which Taylortown cited for this position resulted from employers suing former employees for breach of contact claims, not wrongful termination claims. The Court noted that most states which recognize common law wrongful termination claims also allow claims for resulting damages for “lost wages, future lost earnings, and emotional distress" and found no reason not to allow these types of damage claims. Thus, it was held that the trial court did not err in letting the jury consider and award these types of damages.
What Is The End Result?
We learn a few lessons from this case. First, while recent cases had reduced the strength of the “public policy” exception to the at-will employment rule, North Carolina courts will take a close look at this type of
argument, at least in these sorts of cases. Second, we know that wrongfully terminated employees can argue for a whole host of possible types of damages.
This result makes a lot of practical sense: if damages are caused by a wrongful action and if those damages are foreseeable, there does not seem to be a strong case against letting a jury award that a specific type of damage. Given the tough road that former chief Blakeley faces under the circumstances, there does seem to be some measure of justice in all of these damages including further lost wages.