Maryland Court of Appeals Addresses “Public Policy” Underlying Wrongful Discharge Claim.
The Maryland Court of Appeals (our highest State court) refused to recognize federal regulations prohibiting research misconduct as setting forth public policy that supports a wrongful termination claim.
Under Maryland law, employment is at-will, meaning that either the employer or the employee may terminate the employment relationship at any time, with or without cause or notice. An exception to this at-will rule is where the termination “contravenes some clear mandate of public policy. Public policy may be found in statutes (that otherwise do not provide a legal remedy to the employee) or certain regulations, or prior court opinions. Importantly, the public policy must be “reasonably discernable from prescribed constitutional or statutory mandates.”
In Yuan v. Johns Hopkins University, a former employee pointed to federal regulations prohibiting research misconduct as the basis of the public policy. The Court noted, however, that the identified regulations “lack specificity as to what constitutes a violation” of the prohibition on research misconduct, particularly as the regulations impose the authority to determine if such misconduct has occurred on the research institution (i.e. Hopkins). The Court noted that Hopkins, and not the Court, is therefore in the best position to make this determination. As a result, the Court found that the identified regulations “do not provide a clear public policy to support a tort claim for wrongful termination of employment.”