In the throes of these economic tides, employment is a precious commodity. Many equate threats against their job security to attacks against their very welfare. Yet despite this sentiment, employers may lawfully threaten to fire employees suspected of wrongdoing if they refuse to remain in a confined area for questioning – even if the employee is innocent.
Indeed, the Massachusetts Supreme Court has consistently held that employees’ false imprisonment claims will fail where employees are confined solely by a threat of discharge, because they maintained a “free choice” to move about.
The standard for false imprisonment claims for employees differs from that for customers. Innocent customers suspected of shoplifting who remain in an investigation room for fear of personal difficulty will have viable false imprisonment claims. But, in light of the employer/employee relationship, Massachusetts courts have held that innocent employeesin the same situation do not meet the general false imprisonment standard of “restraint by fear of personal difficulty,”since being forced to remain in a room is just another part of the job, and if they don’t like it, they are free to leave. This is especially true of at-will employees, since being fired from a job they never had a right to in the first place is not a personal difficulty.
But jury findings are on board with the sentiments of society at large, reflecting the view that a threat against one’s job is a personal difficulty, and therefore passes false imprisonment muster. For example, in Proulx v. Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency, Inc., the jury awarded damages to a store employeeaccused of theft who was forced to remain confined for questioningin order to avoid losing her job. Similarly, in Foley v. Polaroid, the jury awarded $500,000 to an employee who was wrongfully accused of raping a co-worker and confined to a room by a threat against his employment.
In both cases the Massachusetts Supreme Court set aside the jury’s findings, concluding that despite the threat of discharge, the employee was free to leave the confined area at all times.It is important to note that employees who are confined by acts of physical force, threats, or other harmful conduct may have viable false imprisonment claims. But despite one’s inclinations during this unseasonable time of economic turmoil, a bare threat against an employee’s job is not grounds for a false imprisonment claim, leaving the employee to either shape up, or ship out.
Photo credit: Microsoft