Virginia employment lawyers who represent plaintiffs are often looking for creative legal theories to help their clients receive justice. Employees seeking redress for perceived wrongful termination face a steep hurdle in the employment-at-will doctrine, under which a private employer, subject to certain exceptions, is free to discharge its employees at any time, for any reason or no reason at all, without incurring civil liability. While it is usually the corporate employer who gets cast in the role of defendant, plaintiffs’ lawyers have occasionally tried to impose liability on the individual manager who terminated or discriminated against the employee, usually without much success. A recent decision from the Eastern District of Virginia’s Richmond Division, however, opens the door to possible claims of “tortious interference” against the individual bad actor.
Williams v. Autozone Stores, Inc. is a sexual harassment case brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits harassment of employees where the conduct is sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a “hostile work environment,” or where the harassing conduct results in a tangible change in an employee’s employment status or benefits (such as getting fired). Williams, a former employee of Autozone, claimed that her manager, Willie Pugh, touched her inappropriately and made sexually-charged comments toward her. After asking Pugh to stop, Williams alleges that he wrote her up for nonexistent problems and that she was consequently transferred to a different store and eventually fired. Williams sued Autozone for alleged discrimination, but also sued Pugh himself on the theory that he tortiously interfered with her employment contract with Autozone. Autozone moved to dismiss the claim, arguing that Pugh was an agent of the company and that a company cannot interfere with its own contracts, but Judge Spencer allowed the claim to go forward.
Pugh pointed out that claims for tortious interference with contract require the existence of three separate parties: the two parties to the contract, and a third party who induces one of the two contracting parties to breach the agreement. As an employee of the company, he argued, he and Autozone were the same entity, negating the possibility of a third party. Pugh also pointed out that Williams acknowledged in her complaint that Pugh was an employee acting within the scope of his employment with Autozone.
Judge Spencer responded by noting that the plaintiff’s admission in her pleadings that Pugh was an agent of Autozone did not preclude a finding that Pugh acted outside the scope of his employment. A party may plead inconsistent facts, the court held, provided they relate to different claims. Turning to the question of whether Pugh’s actions were necessarily the actions of Autozone, the court found that a tortious interference claim could very well be viable even when the interfering party is an employee of one of the contracting parties. The employee would be acting as a third party if his actions were taken outside the scope of his employment, such as if they “arise wholly from some external, independent, and personal motive”. If there is doubt as to whether an employee was acting within the scope of his employment, the court held, then the issue should be resolved by the jury, not decided by the judge prior to trial.