In the 1960's, Carroll R. Daugherty, issued an arbitration decision outlining what are now known as the seven tests of just cause. For better or worse, arbitrators and judges have been using that definition of just cause over the last forty years. A recent Delaware Supreme Court case recently made an effort to 'clarify' what is meant by "just cause."
Cheswold, Delaware is a small town in the middle of the state with approximately 300 residents. The Police Chief, Robbin Vann, was fired after a public hearing and sued for reinstatement. At trial, the city argued fifteen separate grounds for Mr. Vann's termination, including: threatening the mayor; refusing to meet with city staff and elected officials; and frequently being absent during working hours. The trial court found the Mr. Vann was fired for just cause and he appealed.
The Delaware Supreme Court, in upholding Mr. Vann's termination, stated that "just cause" means a "legally sufficient reason supported by job-related factors that rationally and logically touch upon the employee's competency and ability to perform his duties." Although this definition is more than a little circular, the Court's explanation was actually helpful. Essentially, the holding was, if an employer can point to its manual, SOPs, rules or guidelines--or an individual's job description--and link the termination to a significant violation of one of the above, then the employer has shown "just cause."
This case is a reminder that "just cause" provisions in statutes or employment contracts often require an employer to show more than mere personality conflicts or minor violations of policies. For more information on this case, see Vann v. Town of Cheswold, 2008 WL 516659 (Del.Supr. 2008), or read the May 2008 issue of the Public Safety Labor News Journal.