SW Legal studies in Business

Breach of Ethical Standards Not Grounds for Suit against Employer
Description

Appeals court held that an employee of NBC who complained about internal breach of ethics at NBC, and was later fired, had no cause of action against the employer for breach of contract or based on an exception to employment-at-will.

Topic Employment Law
Key Words

Breach of Contract; Employment-at-Will; Exception; Ethical Standards

C A S E   S U M M A R Y
Facts

Bartel worked for NBC for 21 years and won awards for investigative journalism for NBC news. She worked on an NBC Dateline program called “To Catch a Predator.” NBC worked with police in a sting to catch men who thought they were going to meet an under-age girl for sex. Bartel believed numerous aspects of the arrangement violated NBC’s internal guidelines and standards. She was concerned that NBC was paying the police, needlessly sensationalized arrests, and other ethical violations. She was fired in late 2006 and was told it was part of a cutback. She sued for breach of contract, contending that the reason given was a pretext for her complaint about NBC’s breach of its ethical standards. The district court dismissed the suit; Bartel appealed.

Decision

Affirmed. The employment contract allowed NBC to terminate Bartel at the end of any production cycle, which is what happened. So there is no breach of contract. Given that, it is an employment-at-will case. Bartel argues that the public policy exception to employment-at-will should apply, but it does not under New York law. Even if NBC violated its internal ethical standards, it still had the right to fire her for complaining about the alleged breach of its standards.

Citation Bartel v. NBC Universal, 543 F.3d 901 (7th Cir., 2008)

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