Can My Boss Fire Me for Refusing to do Something Illegal?

No employer has the right to demand that an employee break the law. In fact, New York law offers specific whistleblower protections for an employee who discloses information related to an employer's illegal activities. This means that if you witness a violation of the law at your workplace, you can report it to the appropriate state agency without fear of losing your job.

2nd Circuit Upholds Award to Truck Driver Fired for Refusing to Violate Federal Weight Limits

In many cases, you may also have a claim for wrongful termination if you are fired for refusing to violate the law in connection with your employment. For example, in a recent decision, the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals here in New York upheld an award of more than $260,000 to a truck driver who refused his employer's demand to violate federal transportation law. The plaintiff in this case, Kennedy v. Supreme Forest Products, Inc., previously spent 12 years driving trucks for the defendant, a company that sells mulch and other “forest-related products.”

Under federal regulations, commercial trucks that travel on interstate highways can not weigh more than 80,000 pounds. Despite this rule, the plaintiff presented evidence at trial that the defendant “routinely loaded its trucks in excess of 80,000 pounds.” The plaintiff said the defendant did this because overloading trucks “was more profitable for the company because it decreased the total number of loads necessary to drive to fulfill orders.”

In April 2014, the plaintiff refused to drive two loads that both exceeded the federal weight limit. Four days later, the defendant fired the plaintiff. The plaintiff subsequently sued the defendant under the federal Surface Transportation Act (STAA), which expressly protects whistleblowers who refuse “to operate a vehicle because the operation violates a federal safety regulation.”

A jury ruled in favor of the plaintiff and awarded him $11,900 in compensatory damages and an additional $425,000 in punitive damages. The trial judge reduced the punitive damages award to $250,000, which is the limit authorized by the STAA. The defendant still appealed the final judgment.

Before the Second Circuit, the defendant argued the plaintiff “failed to establish an essential element of” his case to the jury, specifically that he “would have operated the vehicle on an interstate highway.” Basically, the plaintiff did not present any direct evidence showing the exact route the employer asked him to take on the day in question. But as the Second Circuit explained, the jury was allowed to make a “reasonable inference” as to what happened. The plaintiff said he refused to deliver the loads because it violated the 80,000 pound weight limit, which only applies to interstate highways. It was “common sense,” the appeals court said, for the jury to notice the only way for the plaintiff to deliver his load would be to use an interstate highway.

Speak with a New York Wrongful Termination Lawyer Today

No employee should ever have to choose between a job and following the law, especially when it comes to upholding basic principles of public safety. If you have cause to act as a whistleblower against your own company and need advice from an experienced New York City employment attorney, contact the Law Offices of Mahir S. Nisar today.