Image Credit: Public Domain
By Anita Wadhwani [Tennessee Lookout -CC BY-NC-ND 4.0] –
In October 2021, during a politically-charged special session of the Tennessee General Assembly to address the COVID crisis, Rep. John Ragan read aloud an email from a BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee employee opposed to her employer’s vaccine mandate.
The employee, Heather Smith, was being given the choice between getting a COVID-19 vaccine or losing her job, the email to Ragan, an east Tennessee Republican, said.
Smith didn’t have a forward-facing job and her religious objections to the vaccine were being ignored, she had written. Smith was seeking “legislative protection for … individual liberties and rights relating to vaccine mandates.”
Smith was fired less than a week later — not for refusing the vaccine, but for putting her complaints in writing to lawmakers. Her wrongful termination lawsuit, however, was dismissed by a Hamilton County judge. She appealed.
On Friday, the Tennessee Court of Appeals ruled in Smith’s favor, establishing — for the first time — that the right of Tennessee employees to petition lawmakers supersedes Tennessee’s at-will employment doctrine, which gives companies the power to fire any employee for nearly any reason.
“Firing an at-will employee merely for writing to the Tennessee General Assembly is a bridge too far,” the decision said.
Instead, the court found: “The right to petition goes to a cornerstone of how employees, as citizens, can reach their government.” Tennessee’s long-standing at-will employment doctrine is “not absolute,” the decision said.
The ruling, the Court of Appeals noted, could apply broadly to a range of employee concerns about their employer.
“While Smith’s grievances happened to concern vaccine mandates, any number of scenarios can be visualized,” the court said. “An at-will employee could write to the General Assembly about workplace safety issues, wages or other labor conditions.”
Those rights are protected under the Tennessee Constitution, the court noted, while stressing that the ruling carves out only a narrow exception to the firmly established at-will employment doctrine.
The appeals court decision also discounted BlueCross’ warning that recognizing an employees right to petition their lawmakers with workplace concerns would open the floodgates to litigation.
“It is exceedingly unlikely that courthouses in Tennessee will overflow with litigants suing their former employers for firing them for writing to the General Assembly. Such an effusion of civic-mindedness, were it to occur, would in any event be grounds for commendation, not scorn.”
The court’s decision is not the end of Smith’s case, which was dismissed by the trial court after it noted it did not have the authority to make a ruling that Tennessee’s at-will employment policy contains exceptions allowing employees to petition the government on workplace issues.
Now that the Court of Appeals has recognized that exception, Smith’s claims will continue in a Chattanooga Court, which must now also consider whether BlueCross’ suggestions that Smith conveyed defamatory and inaccurate information will be considered.