On appeal from Superior Court, Law Division, Bergen County.
Allcorn, Francis and Morton I. Greenberg. The opinion of the court was delivered by Francis, J.A.D.
Plaintiff appeals from a summary judgment entered in favor of defendant upon plaintiff's complaint seeking compensatory and punitive damages for wrongful discharge. At issue is whether plaintiff falls within the public policy exception to the common law rule that private employees unprotected by contract are terminable at will, as recently stated in Pierce v. Ortho Pharmaceutical Corp. , 84 N.J. 58 (1980).
The essential facts are undisputed for purposes of this appeal. From September 1970 to July 5, 1978 plaintiff was employed by defendant as a pharmacist-in-charge at defendant's pharmacy located in its grocery store in Paramus. At all times plaintiff was registered as a pharmacist under New Jersey law, N.J.S.A. 45:14-1 et seq. The pharmacy section was not separated by partition from the other parts of the store and was not capable of being secured. Hence it did not have a special permit as a pharmacy within a larger retail establishment; rather, defendant's whole store was licensed as a pharmacy. In early June 1978 plaintiff's supervisor, Stanley Brumer, advised plaintiff that the pharmacy would be closed on July 4, 1978, although the rest of the store would be open for business as usual. Being under the impression that state regulations required the pharmacy to be open as long as the store was open, plaintiff objected, citing not only the state regulations but also the possibility that his own license might be suspended or revoked. Brumer "responded that no one would know." At plaintiff's insistence, however, Brumer agreed to check with the State Board of Pharmacy.
Subsequently, Brumer notified plaintiff that the Board of Pharmacy had given its permission to close the pharmacy section on July 4. Apparently disbelieving Brumer, plaintiff telephoned
the Board of Pharmacy and learned that, contrary to Brumer's representation, the pharmacy was required to be open as long as the store was open. As a result, the pharmacy was kept open with another pharmacist on duty on July 4. Upon reporting to work on July 5, plaintiff was discharged; no reasons were offered. Plaintiff's essential argument is that a factual issue was presented in his contention that he was discharged solely for attempting to vindicate a state regulation and his own code of professional ethics.
The trial judge granted defendant's motion for summary judgment, reasoning that the administrative regulations and code of ethics which plaintiff felt that he was vindicating were not clear expressions of public policy such as to qualify under the exception recognized in Pierce, supra. In that case plaintiff Pierce was a doctor employed as a research director for defendant. She alleged that she was forced to resign when she was removed from a project involving research on a drug containing saccharin. Citing the medical controversy over the safety of saccharin, she had opposed continued development of the drug. She grounded her objections upon the following clause of the Hippocratic oath: "I will prescribe regimen for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to anyone." Id. at 74. She did not, the court was careful to point out, invoke her professional code of ethics or any statute or possible tort liability. Id. at 64, 74.
The Pierce court acknowledged that in an appropriate case the traditional rule allowing termination of "at will" employees without cause might yield to public policy. Id. at 72. The task of a court is to distinguish between public policy and the employee's own values; the latter would not entitle the employee to immunity from discharge:
Employees who are professionals owe a special duty to abide not only by federal and state law, but also by the recognized codes of ethics of their professions. That duty may oblige them to decline to perform acts required by their employers. However, an employee should not have the right to prevent his or her employer from pursuing its business because the employee perceives that
a particular business decision violates the employee's personal morals, as distinguished from the recognized code of ethics of the employee's profession. [ Id. at 71-72; citation omitted].
It is the employee's burden to identify "a specific expression" or "a clear mandate" of public policy which might bar his discharge. Id. at 72. What ...