CAN A STATE REALLY HAVE A LEGALLY ENFORCEABLE PUBLIC POLICY REQUIRING REASONABLE RESTROOM USE?

Often, Plaintiffs who lose their jobs and decide to pursue legal action take the position that their discharge violated some public policy in their state.  Occasionally, these claims can get quite creative. 

Recently, a production technician at an employer in Ohio brought a wrongful termination claim in state court there alleging his employer violated Ohio’s public policy on restroom use.  Specifically, the Plaintiff claimed his termination violated the public policy requiring employers to allow employees to use the restroom subject to reasonable restrictions. While this position seems sympathetic, a closer examination of the allegations in the case reveals that his lawsuit was probably doomed from the start. 

The Plaintiff – a factory line worker – needed to use the restroom a few hours into his shift.  He couldn’t find anyone to watch his line, so he decided to leave it unattended. When he returned, a supervisor reprimanded him for leaving his line without any coverage.  

Despite the reprimand, the Plaintiff again left his line without coverage during lunch.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the result the Plaintiff was fortunate to avoid in the morning was unavoidable this time around: the line jammed causing over 100 bottles to be dropped.  At the end of the day, the employer’s human resources department terminated him.  Somehow, HR was unaware at the time that the Plaintiff left his line unattended for a third time later in the afternoon. 

Ohio actually does have a common law public policy requiring employers to provide employees access to restrooms, subject to reasonable restrictions.  Legally, guidance from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) tells us that it’s reasonable to implement relief worker systems in jobs where an employee’s absence would be disruptive, such as assembly line work.  Although the state appellate court that heard this case acknowledged the public policy, it found that the Plaintiff was terminated for leaving his line unattended and failure to follow supervisor instructions, not for going to the bathroom.  According to the Court, the fact that the Plaintiff used the restroom while violating work rules was incidental to his termination, rather than the reason for his termination. 

One takeaway from this case for employers is the need for accurate and thorough documentation in instances of insubordination, or when work instructions aren’t followed.  That’s one reason why the employer prevailed here.  The Plaintiff’s claim came down to a simple question: why was he fired?  The clear and unambiguous written communication issued by human resources made it easier for the employer to stand behind its supervisor and work rules once a lawsuit was filed, rather than look unfair or be looked at as possibly violating state public policy for not letting its employees use the restroom. 

These kind of cases may seem silly, but don’t confuse their simple nature with what is possibly at stake for the employer.  Keeping accurate and consistent documentation will go a long way towards ensuring that you aren’t on the hook for potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages that may have been avoided quite easily by following clean HR practices.

Lindsay Bouffard focuses her practice in the area of labor and employment law.
 
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