Utah Favors Employees’ Right of Self-Defense Over Employers’ Policies

Yarelyn Mena and Edgar M. Rivera, Esq.

On September 18, 2015, in Ray v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., the Utah Supreme Court found in favor of five former Wal-Mart employees, holding that Wal-Mart wrongfully terminated their employment. The five employees brought this lawsuit after two separate incidents in 2011. In the first incident, employees Derek Holt and Eric Hunter, grabbed a suspected shoplifter after the suspect pulled out a knife, resulting in Mr. Holt and Mr. Hunter using force to disarm him. Following the incident, Wal-Mart terminated Mr. Holt’s and Mr. Hunter’s employment for violating company policy, which prohibits the use of force that may put at risk fellow workers or shoppers. In the second incident, Wal-Mart employees Shawn Ray, Lori Poulsen and Gabriel Stewart detained a customer suspected of stealing. When they confronted the suspect, Ms. Poulsen saw a gun in the suspect’s pocket, and a physical altercation ensued. The three employees pinned the suspect down and retrieved the gun. Wal-Mart immediately terminated these employees for violating the same policy.

Wal-Mart’s policy states: “If [a] suspect is believed to possess a weapon, the suspect must not be approached. If during an approach or investigation it becomes apparent that the suspect has a weapon or brandishes or threatens use of a weapon, all associates must disengage from the situation, withdraw to a safe position, and contact law enforcement.” The former Wal-Mart employees claimed that this policy violated Utah’s public policy.

Like the laws of nearly all 50 states, including New York, under Utah law there is a presumption that all employment relationships are “at will”, meaning the relationship can be terminated by either an employer or an employee for any reason (or no reason) other than those prohibited by law. However, Utah—unlike many states, including New York—recognizes an exception to the at-will doctrine where an employee’s termination violates a “clear and substantial” public policy. In this case, the issue before the Utah Supreme Court was whether the right of self-defense is the type of public policy that provides an exception to the at-will employment doctrine. The majority of the court concluded it was, stating “there is a clear and substantial public policy in Utah favoring the right of self-defense,” and that “the right of self-defense is enshrined in Utah statutes.” The court limited the exception to situations where an employee reasonably believes that force is necessary to defend against an imminent threat of serious bodily harm, and the employee has no opportunity to withdraw.

However, the dissenting opinion, written by Associate Chief Justice Thomas R. Lee, described the issue before the court as whether Utah’s public policy protecting the right to self-defense was sufficient to override the right of an employer and employee to agree to give the employer the final say in case of doubt about the reasonableness of an employee’s act of self-defense in the workplace. Justice Lee contended that the majority opinion threatened an employer’s ability to adopt and enforce workplace violence policies, arguing that recognition of this “self-defense” exception will ultimately lead to less safe workplaces. However, the majority rightly decided that protecting employees’ rights was more important then Justice Lee’s concerns about overly litigious employees taking advantage of this exception and flouting workplace rules.

If you believe you were wrongfully terminated, please contact The Harman Firm,LLP.