By Dan Menken

Last Thursday, January 8th, in Weidman v. Exxon Mobil Corp., the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of Plaintiff’s motion to remand and also affirmed the dismissal of all but one of his tort claims. Because the dismissal of one of Plaintiff’s claims was reversed, the Circuit Court remanded the case for further proceedings.

Plaintiff Stated Four Claims Based on Employer’s Conduct

In March 2013, Weidman filed suit against his former employer, ExxonMobil, and ten ExxonMobil employees. Plaintiff alleged that the Medical Department of ExxonMobil committed violations of the law by operating illegal pharmacies and illegally stockpiling large quantities of medication. He further alleged that after he reported the violations to ExxonMobil, an employee of the Medical Department initiated a campaign of retaliation against him. After reporting his colleague’s conduct, Plaintiff stated that ExxonMobil conducted a “sham” investigation concluding that Weidman had not been harassed and that the pharmacies were legal. During a second investigation, Plaintiff reported that one of the investigators admitted to him that ExxonMobil had been operating an illegal pharmacies for years.

Plaintiff then alleged that he was required to participate in a performance improvement plan, which lasted for over a year. Plaintiff contended that the purpose of the meetings was not to improve his performance, but to overburden him with the creation of new tasks meant to cause his failure to perform. He stated that during one of these performance meetings on October 24, 2012, he suffered a heart attack which was a direct result of the stress maliciously inflicted upon him. In mid-December 2012, ExxonMobil extended Plaintiff’s performance plan. ExxonMobil subsequently terminated Weidman’s employment at his next meeting in January 2013 for failing to cooperate with the plan.

Weidman then filed suit asserting four causes of action: (1) fraud based on Appellees alleged retaliation against him despite contrary assurance in the employee handbook and the CEO’s yearly videos; (2) intentional infliction of emotional distress; (3) personal injury based on damage to his heart; and (4) wrongful discharge. Defendant removed the case to the Eastern District of Virginia and moved to dismiss the case. Plaintiff moved to remand the case to state court. The district court dismissed all of Plaintiff’s claims and denied his motion to remand.

First Three Claims Fail to State a Claim

The district court denied Plaintiff’s motion to remand based on the “fraudulent joinder” doctrine, despite the fact that Weidman had named three non-diverse defendants in his complaint. The fraudulent joinder doctrine provides that diversity jurisdiction is not automatically defeated by naming non-diverse defendants. The district court may retain jurisdiction if the non-moving party shows that the plaintiff committed outright fraud in pleading jurisdictional facts, or that “there is no possibility that the plaintiff would be able to establish a cause of action against the in-state defendant in state court.” Mayes v. Rapoport, 198 F.3d 457, 464 (4th Cir. 1999). The Fourth Circuit agreed that Weidman’s claims against the non-diverse defendants had no possibility of succeeding, and thus affirmed the district court’s denial of Weidman’s motion to remand.

The Circuit Court then performed a de novo review of the district court’s dismissal for failure to state a claim. According to Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, a complaint “must contain sufficient facts to state a claim that is plausible on its face.” The Fourth Circuit held that Weidman failed to sufficiently plead his fraud claim by making vague referrals to statements from ExxonMobil’s CEO and members of the Human Resources Department. Moreover, the facts stated in his claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress did not reach the level of “outrageous and intolerable” conduct, and was therefore properly dismissed. The claim for personal injury was also properly dismissed because it only stated a “naked assertion devoid of further factual enhancement,” and thus failed to meet the requirement laid out in Ashcroft v. Iqbal.

Plaintiff Sufficiently Stated Claim For Wrongful Discharge Based on Public Policy

Finally, in regards to Plaintiff’s wrongful discharge claim, Virginia law recognizes three situations in which a litigant may show her discharge violated public policy: (1) where an employer fired an employee for exercising a statutorily created right; (2) when the public policy is “explicitly expressed in the statute and the employee was clearly a member of that class of persons directly entitled to the protection enunciated by the public policy”; and (3) “where the discharge was based on the employee’s refusal to engage in a criminal act.”

Here, the Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s ruling, stating that Weidman sufficiently stated a claim that he was fired for refusing to engage in a criminal act. Sections 54.1-3310 and 54.1-3435 of the Virginia Code make it unlawful for anyone to practice pharmacy or to engage in wholesale distribution of prescription drugs without a license. Although these sections are not part of Virginia’s criminal code, a violation of these sections lead to criminal penalties. Defendants argue that this claim cannot survive because Weidman failed to cite the statute in his complaint. The Fourth Circuit stated, however, that any deficiency in this regard is merely technical. Therefore, Plaintiff pled sufficient factual detail that he was fired for refusing to participate in “illegal pharmacy distribution activities.”

Case Remanded To Address Wrongful Discharge Claim

Thus, the Fourth Circuit reversed the dismissal of Weidman’s wrongful discharge claim against ExxonMobil and remanded the case for further proceedings.

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