Don’t Bet Your Job on Whether You Know Better

Wrongful TerminationA case out of San Diego beautifully illustrates an issue that I frequently encounter with prospective clients, and provides a cautionary tale.

The fact pattern is so common that I have given it a name — the “‘I Know Better’ Syndrome”, or “Syndrome” for short.  The Syndrome arises when an employee takes a firm stand on some issue, to the point of refusing to do what they are told, believing that they have a better understanding of the law or company policies.

For example, the company policy will be that reimbursements can’t be made out of petty cash without a receipt. The boss tells an employee to reimburse another worker for a company lunch, and the employ refuses because the worker does not have a receipt. The boss writes her up for insubordination, but the employee will have none of that and goes to Human Resources to complain that she was written up when all she did was follow company policy. The next thing she knows, she is called in and terminated because her inflexible adherence to the strict letter of the policies has just become too much of an annoyance.

So it was in the San Diego case.  Here is a summary of the facts, as reported by Sign On San Diego. The Superior Court in San Diego is way behind the electronic curve so I could not review the actual court documents on file.  This summary is based on what was reported on Sign On San Diego and may not be entirely accurate. The point here is not the specific facts but the legal issue they illustrate.

Shari Watson, a Chula Vista council aide, was told to deposit a $2,400 check from Cox Communications, made out to “The City of Chula Vista/International Friendship Games”. This bothered Watson, because Cox had only agreed to a $1,000 sponsorship for the event.  Watson could not reconcile why Cox would be sending a check for $2,400.  Watson asked Deputy Mayor Rudy Ramirez if she could call Cox to see if the check was made out in error, but he told her to go ahead and deposit it and let the finance department work out any problems.

Freeze.  Right there is the moment in time that employees fall prey to the I Know Better Syndrome.  The supervisor has just given clear instructions, but the employee thinks she knows better.  Watson was absolutely, positively, 100% correct – the check was a mistake, and was meant for payment of city permits and not for the event – but that wasn’t really the issue. Ramirez had instructed her to deposit the check and let another department deal with the possible mistake, according to the article. When Watson refused to deposit the check, Ramirez had another employee deposit it, and the accounting snafu was eventually rectified. However, Ramirez fired Watson, allegedly for her “inability to take direction.”

Well that can’t be allowed to stand, right? After all, Watson was doing the right thing, and what she was being asked to do might even be illegal.  That’s what Watson and her attorney thought, so she sued for wrongful termination, claiming she was a whistle blower and that it was therefore a violation of public policy to terminate her for refusing to engage in illegal activity.

Judge William Cannon disagreed, ruling that even if all the allegations of the complaint were taken as true, the facts did not constitute a wrongful termination. As an at-will employee, Watson could be fired for no reason, so long as the termination was not a violation of public policy. If depositing the check had been illegal, Watson’s termination would have been wrongful. But apparently Judge Cannon decided that depositing the check would not have been illegal.

So there is the lesson. You can and should stand up to your boss and refuse to engage in illegal activity, but you must be certain that the activity is genuinely illegal. If you bet wrong, it can cost you your job. According to the article, Watson’s attorney is vowing to appeal, but if Sign On San Diego accurately reported the facts, that appeal is very unlikely to succeed. The reason is that if Ramirez did tell Watson to go ahead and deposit the check, and then allow another department to figure it all out, then I can’t imagine how that would rise to the level of illegal activity.  I don’t see a basis for Watson to refuse to do what she was asked.  If I had been in Watson’s position, I would have deposited the check and resolved to make it my daily routine to follow up until the matter was resolved.  If it turned out that the issue was never resolved and the check was part of some nefarious scheme, then the issue could have been reported up the chain.

One thought on “Don’t Bet Your Job on Whether You Know Better

  1. Pingback: Wrongful Termination Plaintiffs Permitted to Testify as Their Own Experts : Aaron Morris' Business Law Alert

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