This is an appeal by Wanda Pilcher from the orders of the
district court directing verdicts in favor of the Board of County
Commissioners of Wyandotte County (Board) on her causes of action
against the Board for damages for breach of an implied employment
contract, violation of her due process rights, and retaliatory
discharge for alleged "whistle-blowing." She also complains that
the district court erred in instructing the jury on her claim for
retaliatory discharge for filing a workers' compensation claim.
Upon review, we affirm the directed verdicts on the claims for
breach of implied contract and violation of due process rights.
We reverse the district court on the claim for retaliatory
discharge and, further, for errors in instructing the jury on the
claim for retaliatory discharge for filing a workers'
Pilcher had been employed by Wyandotte County as a case manager
in the county community corrections agency and had been so
employed from July 17, 1981, until her alleged wrongful discharge
on June 22, 1987. Pilcher's claims against the Board
arise out of at least three separate factual scenarios, none of
which are necessarily related to the other.
For its part, the Board denies that it had any improper motives
in discharging Pilcher, denies that she had an implied contract,
and denies that she was discharged either for "whistle-blowing"
or for filing a workers' compensation claim. The Board simply
points out that Pilcher missed too many days of work as a result
of arm and ankle injuries she sustained when she fell outside the
Wyandotte County courthouse. The Board says that, according to
its policy, she missed too many consecutive days of work and was
discharged for that reason alone.
We first turn to Pilcher's claim that the Board breached an
implied contract by discharging her and that she was denied due
process in the termination procedure. These two claims are based
upon certain oral understandings Pilcher had of what had to take
place before someone could be fired from a job at community
corrections. Although conceding that she had no written or oral
contract with the Board as to terms or the length of her
employment, Pilcher contends that it was her understanding that
an employee, before being fired, must be given a minimum of three
warnings and an opportunity to appear before an advisory board.
Pilcher insists that this understanding amounted to an implied
contract and that it was breached by the Board by the method in
which her employment was terminated.
We first address the issue of implied contract of employment
and, specifically, whether the trial court acted properly in
directing a verdict for the defendant on this issue.
The Kansas Supreme Court in Holley v. Allen Drilling Co.,
241 Kan. 707, 710, 740 P.2d 1077 (1987), discussed the rules to be
followed in cases where a motion for directed verdict is filed:
"In ruling on a motion for a directed verdict, the
court is required to resolve all facts and inferences
reasonably to be drawn from the evidence in favor of
the party against whom the ruling is sought and where
reasonable minds could reach different conclusions
based on the evidence the motion must be denied and
the matter submitted to the jury. This rule is also
applicable when appellate review is sought on a
motion for directed verdict. Further, the same test
is applicable to a motion for judgment
notwithstanding the verdict. [Citation omitted.]"
In Sampson v. Hunt, 233 Kan. 572, 578, 665 P.2d 743 (1983),
the Kansas Supreme Court held that the question before a trial
court on a motion for a directed verdict is not
"whether there is literally no evidence supporting
the party against whom the motion is directed, but
whether there is evidence upon which the jury could
properly find a verdict for that party. Even where
facts are undisputed it is possible that conflicting
inferences may be drawn from those facts, and where
that is true, the issue must be submitted to the
jury. [Citation omitted.] Where no evidence is
presented on a particular issue, or the evidence
presented is undisputed and it is such that the minds
of reasonable persons may not draw differing
inferences and arrive at opposing conclusions with
reason and justice, the matter becomes a question of
law for the court's determination. [Citations
Pilcher was seeking to prove that she had an implied contract
of employment which laid down certain steps that had to be taken
before she could be discharged.
Kansas is an "employee-at-will" state in which the general rule
is that, absent an express or implied contract between employer
and employee, either party may terminate the employment
relationship at any time they please with or without cause. In
short, absent a contract, an employee may be discharged at any
time and the employer need have no reason or cause for
discharging the employee and, by the same token, the employee may
quit his job at any time for any reason. See Johnson v. National
Beef Packing Co., 220 Kan. 52, 54, 551 P.2d 779 (1976).
There are some exceptions to the general rule. For reasons of
public policy, an employee-at-will may not be discharged for
filing a workers' compensation claim. Murphy v. City of Topeka,
6 Kan. App. 2d 488, 493, 630 P.2d 186 (1981). Neither may an
employee-at-will be discharged under circumstances where that
discharge is against any clear public policy. See Cain v. Kansas
Corporation Commission, 9 Kan. App. 2d 100, 673 P.2d 451 (1983),
rev. denied 235 Kan. 1041 (1984).
In the instant matter, we deal with a claim of implied
contract. If Pilcher's evidence was not sufficient to go to a
jury on this issue, she was nothing more than an employee-at-will
and her termination was proper ...