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Pfeifer v. Federal Express Corp.

Supreme Court of Kansas

June 7, 2013

Cynthia Pfeifer, Plaintiff,
v.
Federal Express Corporation, Defendant.

SYLLABUS

1. The Uniform Certification of Questions of Law Act, K.S.A. 60-3201 et seq., authorizes the Kansas Supreme Court to answer questions from courts of other jurisdictions when a response may be determinative of a case pending in that jurisdiction and there is no controlling Kansas precedent.

2. Kansas has long adhered to the employment-at-will doctrine, which means employment is terminable at the will of either the employer or the employee. But there are exceptions to that doctrine when an employee is terminated in violation of public policy.

3. One exception to the employment-at-will doctrine exists when an employer retaliates against an injured worker for exercising the employee's rights under the Kansas Workers Compensation Act, K.S.A. 44-501 et seq. In such cases, a common-law tort for retaliatory discharge is recognized to protect the employee's exercise of those statutory rights and the public policy underlying them.

4. The 2-year statute of limitations stated in K.S.A. 60-513(a)(4) applies to a common-law retaliatory discharge claim.

5. A contractual provision in an employment agreement that shortens the 2-year statute of limitations for filing a common-law retaliatory discharge claim based on the employee's exercise of statutory rights under the Workers Compensation Act is void as against public policy.

On certification of questions of law from the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, Bobby R. Baldock, certifying judge. Opinion filed June 7, 2013. The questions certified are determined.

George A. Barton, of Law Offices of George A. Barton, P.C., of Kansas City, Missouri, argued the cause, and Robert G. Harken, of the same firm, was on the brief for plaintiff.

Terrence O. Reed, of Memphis, Tennessee, argued the cause, and Richard A. Olmstead, of Kutak Rock LLP, of Wichita, was on the brief for defendant.

Biles, J.

The issue presented is lodged squarely between two long-standing public policy interests that are at odds in this case. One concerns the protections afforded injured workers against retaliatory discharge when exercising statutory workers compensation rights. The other is the freedom to contract. This controversy comes to us from the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit under the Uniform Certification of Questions of Law Act, K.S.A. 60-3201 et seq., which authorizes this court to answer questions from other courts when that response may be determinative of a pending case and there is no controlling Kansas precedent.

The Tenth Circuit is considering a retaliatory discharge claim brought by Cynthia Pfeifer against her former employer, Federal Express Corporation (FedEx). She filed her lawsuit 15 months after she was fired, alleging she was terminated for exercising her rights as an injured worker under the Kansas Workers Compensation Act, K.S.A. 44-501 et seq. Kansas law provides a 2-year statute of limitations for such claims. K.S.A. 60-513(a)(4) (action for injury to rights of another); Burnett v. Southwestern Bell Telephone, 283 Kan. 134, 144, 151 P.3d 837 (2007) (recognizing a 2-year limitations period for retaliatory discharge).

But FedEx argues Pfeifer's employment contract required her to file suit within 6 months of her termination. The federal district court agreed with FedEx and granted summary judgment. Pfeifer v. Federal Exp. Corp., 818 F.Supp.2d 1287 (D. Kan. 2011). Pfeifer appealed. The certified questions and our responses are:

1. Does Kansas law, specifically K.S.A. 60-501 and/or public policy, prohibit private parties from contractually shortening the generally applicable ...

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