June 15, 2019

Colorado Court of Appeals: Employer May Terminate Employee for Conduct Reasonably Related to Job Activities

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Williams v. Rock-Tenn Services, Inc. on Thursday, February 11, 2016.

Douglas Williams had been employed by Rock-Tenn Services for 36 years, and in the last four years of his employment, Williams was the Denver plant manager. In 2012, the Denver plant underwent a scheduled audit. Williams rescheduled his previously approved vacation in order to attend the post-audit meeting on June 27, 2012, but due to a scheduling conflict with upper-level management, the meeting was rescheduled for July 3, 2012, during Williams’ previously scheduled vacation. Williams’ supervisor, Vas, approved the vacation and absence from the meeting, but Vas’ supervisor, Morris, became upset that Williams was not at the meeting and ordered his termination. When Williams returned from vacation, he was terminated.

Williams sued Rock-Tenn under Colorado’s Lawful Off-Duties Activities Statute (LODAS), arguing that his approved vacation and absence from the meeting was a lawful activity for which he could not be terminated. Rock-Tenn filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, which the district court granted, holding that Williams’ conduct plainly fell within one of the LODAS exceptions because the termination was reasonably and rationally related to Williams’ duty to attend the post-audit meeting. Williams appealed, holding the dismissal was in error because his approved vacation was a personal, private activity protected by LODAS. He also suggested the dismissal was improper because it was based on an affirmative defense.

The court of appeals analyzed Williams’ factual allegations and found that they plainly showed the vacation and missing the meeting were inextricably linked. Williams was unavailable in person or by phone during his vacation, and the court agreed with the district court’s determination that Williams alleged Rock-Tenn improperly terminated him for missing the meeting while he was on a pre-approved vacation. Although the court found that Williams was correct that generally a party need not address an affirmative defense in its complaint, in these circumstances Williams was on notice of the availability of the affirmative defense because his complaint alleged impropriety under the same subsection of LODAS from which the affirmative defense arises. The court therefore found no error in the district court’s dismissal. Similarly, the court of appeals agreed with the district court that Williams’ complaint failed to state a claim from which relief could be granted due to the presence of the affirmative defense. Addressing Rock-Tenn’s request for attorney fees, the court of appeals declined to award attorney fees, noting that Rock-Tenn stated no legal basis for the fee award.

The court of appeals affirmed the district court.

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