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Don’t Roll the Dice When It Comes to the Employment-At-Will Doctrine

Posted: Aug 28, 2014

In Galle v. Isle of Capri Casinos, Inc., et. al., the Court of Appeals of Mississippi recently reversed summary judgment in favor of the Isle of Capri Casinos, Inc. (the “Casino”) and various people in its employ (collectively “Casino Defendants”), and remanded the case to the Circuit Court for trial.  The case is a wake-up call to casinos and other employers regarding wrongful discharge claims.

Here is the Opinion

Here is what happened

Mr. Galle began work in the poker room of the Casino, but he was quickly promoted to poker room manager.  The manager position, however, required Mr. Galle to obtain a key license from the Mississippi Gaming Commission.  Having failed to disclose a prior arrest, Mr. Galle was denied the key license, and he was nominally demoted to a supervisor position.  Nevertheless, Mr. Galle was issued an ID badge that identified him as a manager.  Mr. Galle reported this to his supervisor, but was told to wear the ID badge anyway, and he did.  An inspector from the Gaming Commission later noticed Mr. Galle’s badge.  An inspection ensued, and found Mr. Galle was illegally acting as a manager, and disciplinary action was threatened if he was not removed from that position.  Mr. Galle was fired, and he filed suit for wrongful termination, among other claims.

The Casino Defendants won summary judgment on all claims on the ground that Mr. Galle was an at-will employee.  On appeal, Mr. Galle asserted that the Casino had wrongfully terminated him for revealing to the Gaming Commission that the Casino had illegally allowed him to continue to manage the poker room.

Mississippi is an “employment-at-will state” meaning an employee-at-will can generally be fired for a good reason, a  bad reason, or no reason at all.  In this case, the Court of Appeals relied on an exception to the employment-at-will doctrine to reverse summary judgment on the wrongful termination claim.

After tossing out Mr. Galle’s unsworn affidavit as insufficient evidence, the Court of Appeals then pointed to a letter from the Gaming Commission on which the Casino Defendants had previously relied, and applied an exception to the employment-at-will doctrine.  As the Court of Appeals  explains, “[w]hen an at-will employee is fired for reporting an illegal activity of the employer he has a cause of action for wrongful termination.”  Based on the Gaming Commission’s letter, the Court found there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Mr. Galle was wrongfully terminated for reporting his illegally managing the poker room.

Unfortunately, the problems for the Casino Defendants did not end there.  In his “kitchen sink” Complaint, Mr. Galle asserted a variety causes of action, including defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress, to which one’s status as an at-will employee is not outcome-determinative.  Nevertheless, the Casino Defendants simply contended they were entitled to summary judgment because Mr. Galle was an at-will employee, but did not address each specific cause of action.  Despite the fact that Mr. Galle failed to produce any evidence on these other claims, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment reasoning that summary judgment cannot be granted on grounds that are not raised in the motion.  In other words, since the Casino Defendants did not raise the specific causes of action in their motion, Mr. Galle was not required to individually address them at the summary judgment stage, and the Court of Appeals remanded the whole case to the trial court.

Here is the take away  One important take away here is that casino employers should completely avoid having employees doing work that they are not licensed to do, no matter what their official title is – period. Further, all employers must be mindful of the exception to the employment-at-will doctrine where an employee is terminated for reporting illegal activity or refusing to engage in illegal activity, which under this case now includes reporting working a position without the appropriate license from the Gaming Commission.

 Lindsay Thomas Dowdle and Joseph (“JoJo”) L. Adams, attorneys in Jones Walker’s  Labor and Employment Group in Jackson, MS.

 JoJo can be reached at jojoadams@joneswalker.com or (601)949-4856.

Lindsay can be reached at ldowdle@joneswalker.com or (601)949-4944.

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