Employment Termination Motivated by “Spite, Ill Will or Malice” is Not Wrongful Termination Under Virginia Tort Law

In Lewis-Gale Medical Center, LLC v. Alldredge, the Supreme Court of Virginia recently refused to broaden the range of circumstances under which a plaintiff could successfully assert a tortuous interference with contract claim.  The case involved a physician who was an employee of a physician staffing service under contract with a hospital to provide physician staffing.  After the hospital suspected the physician of encouraging labor unrest among the nursing staff, the hospital complained to the staffing service and asked that the staffing service “take care of the issue” and resolve it one way or the other.  The staffing service, concerned about the possibility that it may lose a valuable contract with the hospital, terminated the physician’s employment.  The physician filed a lawsuit against the hospital claiming that the hospital tortuously interfered with her contract with the staffing service.

The Supreme Court first noted that when a contract is terminable at will – as it was here – the plaintiff must not only prove that intentional interference caused the termination of the contract, but also that the defendant employed improper methods.  However, the Court refused the plaintiff’s invitation to expand the parameters of “improper methods” to include actions solely motivated by spite, ill will and malice toward the plaintiff.

Because the contract between the staffing service and hospital was terminable for any reason or no reason at all, the staffing service had to be continually sensitive to the possibility of termination.  The comments made by the hospital to the staffing service – even if construed as intimidation or duress – was a result of the very nature of the at-will contract between the staffing service and hospital and could not, as a matter of law, rise to the level of improper methods necessary to establish a tortuous interference claim.  In other words, when an employer is pressured by a client to fire an employee simply because the client manifests ill will towards the employee, the employee likely has an uphill battle in establishing a tortuous interference claim against the client under Virginia law.

The competitive marketplace is a “rough-and-tumble world” and this case is a reminder that “the law provides a remedy in tort only where the plaintiff can prove that the third party’s actions were illegal or fell so far outside the accepted practice of that ‘rough-and-tumble world’ as to constitute improper methods.”