Court upholds termination of Catholic school principal, rejecting retaliatory discharge claim

Howard Friedman, Religion Clause

In Petschonek v. Catholic Diocese of Memphis2012 Tenn. App. LEXIS 330 (TN App., May 23, 2012), a Tennessee state appeals court dismissed a retaliatory discharge claim brought by the former principal of a Catholic school against the Diocese of Memphis.  Plaintiff claimed that the Diocese terminated her employment in retaliation for her refusal to remain silent about the misuse of $50,000 raised by parents to purchase computer equipment for student use. The court refused to decide whether plaintiff’s claim was barred by the ministerial exception doctrine because the issue had not been  not been certified for interlocutory appeal, decided by the trial court, or raised as an affirmative defense by the Diocese. However the court added:

In so doing, we express no opinion on whether an action alleging common law retaliatory discharge, a cause of action intended to protect the public by encouraging employees to report an employer’s illegal or unethical activity … is sufficiently similar to a cause of action alleging retaliatory discharge in violation of the ADA, a statute protecting certain individuals from discrimination in the work place, to warrant application of the ministerial exception.

The court however granted summary judgment for defendant, holding that the retaliatory discharge doctrine applies only to employees at will. Plaintiff here was under contract. The contract permitted the Diocese to discharge plaintiff without cause before the end of the contract period, and entitled plaintiff to 30 days’ pay if that happened.