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Newton v. Morgantown Machine & Hydraulics of West Virginia, Inc.

Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia

November 19, 2019

TIMOTHY NEWTON Plaintiff Below, Petitioner
v.
MORGANTOWN MACHINE & HYDRAULICS OF WEST VIRGINIA, INC., AND SWANSON INDUSTRIES, INC., Defendants Below, Respondents

          Submitted: October 29, 2019

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of Monongalia County The Honorable Russell M. Clawges, Jr., Judge Civil Action No. 18-C-117

          Drew M. Capuder Capuder Fantasia PLLC Fairmont, West Virginia Attorney for Petitioner

          Rodney L. Bean Shelby A. Hicks-Merinar STEPTOE & JOHNSON PLLC Morgantown, West Virginia Attorneys for Respondents

         SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

         1. "Appellate review of a circuit court's order granting a motion to dismiss a complaint is de novo." Syllabus point 2, State ex rel. McGraw v. Scott Runyan Pontiac-Buick, Inc., 194 W.Va. 770');">194 W.Va. 770, 461 S.E.2d 516 (1995).

         2. "'"Whether a complaint states a claim upon which relief may be granted is to be determined solely from the provisions of such complaint[.]" Syl. pt. 3, in part, Barker v. Traders Bank, 152 W.Va. 774');">152 W.Va. 774, 166 S.E.2d 331 (1969).' Syl. Pt. 2, Par Mar v. City of Parkersburg, 183 W.Va. 706');">183 W.Va. 706, 398 S.E.2d 532 (1990)." Syllabus point 11, Vanderpool v. Hunt, 241 W.Va. 254, 823 S.E.2d 526 (2019).

         3. "The rule that an employer has an absolute right to discharge an at will employee must be tempered by the principle that where the employer's motivation for the discharge is to contravene some substantial public policy principle, then the employer may be liable to the employee for damages occasioned by this discharge." Syllabus, Harless v. First National Bank in Fairmont, 162 W.Va. 116, 246 S.E.2d 270 (1978).

         4. "When an at will employee has been discharged from his/her employment based upon his/her exercise of self-defense in response to lethal imminent danger, such right of self-defense constitutes a substantial public policy exception to the at will employment doctrine and will sustain a cause of action for wrongful discharge." Syllabus point 8, Feliciano v. 7-Eleven, Inc., 210 W.Va. 740, 559 S.E.2d 713 (2001).

          JENKINS, JUSTICE.

         Petitioner Timothy Newton ("Mr. Newton") herein appeals from the June 19, 2018 order of the Circuit Court of Monongalia County dismissing his complaint filed against Respondents Morgantown Machine & Hydraulics of West Virginia, Inc., and Swanson Industries, Inc. ("Respondents"). The circuit court determined that Mr. Newton's complaint, alleging wrongful discharge in contravention of substantial public policy, failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure. On appeal, Mr. Newton contends that his complaint was sufficient to save his case from dismissal. Having considered the briefs submitted on appeal, the appendix record, the parties' oral arguments, and the applicable legal authority, we find that the circuit court did not err in granting the motion to dismiss. Accordingly, we affirm the circuit court's final order.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         In April of 2011, Mr. Newton was hired by Respondents as a truck dispatcher. He was employed as an at will employee. On March 15, 2016, Mr. Newton engaged in a physical altercation with a co-worker in the workplace. The next day, Mr. Newton and the co-worker were both terminated from their positions. Two years later, on March 14, 2018, Mr. Newton filed a complaint against Respondents in the Circuit Court of Monongalia County alleging that he was wrongfully discharged from his at will employment under Harless v. First National Bank in Fairmont, 162 W.Va. 115, 246 S.E.2d 270 (1978). More specifically, Mr. Newton asserted that he was fired after using "only absolutely necessary force to defend himself." The facts as pled in the complaint are as follows:

15. On March 15, 2016, Mr. Newton was working in his position as Truck Dispatcher when another employee, a truck driver, physically assaulted Mr. Newton.
16. Mr. Newton applied only necessary force to defend himself, and did not apply any force beyond what was necessary to protect himself.
17. Later that day, Mr. Newton's direct boss, Eric Farnham, told Mr. Newton that Mr. Farnham had consulted with the human resources department management of Swanson Industries, Inc., and that Swanson Industries, Inc.[, ] made the decision to suspend Mr. Newton through March 17, even though they understood Mr. Newton's actions constituted self-defense when being attacked by the truck driver.
18. On March 16, 2016, Mr. Farnham informed Mr. Newton that Swanson Industries, Inc.[, ] had reconsidered the decision, and decided to fire Mr. Newton instead of suspend Mr. Newton.
19. Mr. Newton was therefore fired on March 16, 2016[, ] by Morgantown Machine, despite the fact that both corporate Defendants understood that Mr. Newton's actions constituted self-defense.

         Respondents filed a motion to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6) of the West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure. In their motion, Respondents argued that Mr. Newton failed to state a claim for wrongful discharge because the physical conduct at issue was not in response to lethal imminent danger, but rather in response to a workplace argument. Mr. Newton filed a response to the motion to dismiss, in which he set out additional, more detailed facts concerning the physical attack.

         Following a hearing on the motion, by order entered on June 19, 2018, the circuit court granted Respondents' motion to dismiss. The circuit court determined that despite Mr. Newton's claim that the self-defense exception to the at will employment doctrine applied in this case, Mr. Newton "was engaged in an altercation with a coworker that did not involve weapons, dangerous circumstances, or a threat of lethal imminent danger. The facts in this case [did] not describe the substantial ...


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