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February 19, 1998



Before Farrell and King, Associate Judges, and Belson, Senior Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: King, Associate Judge:

Deborah Mandsager, an at-will employee claiming she had been fired from her job because she refused to violate certain laws, filed a wrongful discharge action against her employer Public Education Center, Inc. ("PECI") and PECI's president, Wayne T. Jaquith. See Adams v. George W. Cochran & Co., 597 A.2d 28 (D.C. 1991) (recognizing a narrow exception to the at-will doctrine allowing a terminated employee to recover for a wrongful discharge when the sole reason for the discharge was the employee's refusal to violate the law). The trial court granted Jaquith's motion to dismiss the complaint as it applied to him individually on the ground that the action could be maintained, if at all, only against the employer and not against Jaquith personally. Subsequently, the trial court also granted the employer's motion for [706 A2d Page 40]

summary judgment, ruling that the employer had not put Mandsager to the choice of either violating the law or being fired if she refused to do so. See Thigpen v. Greenpeace, Inc., 657 A.2d 770, 771 (D.C. 1995) (this exception to the at-will doctrine requires "an outright refusal to violate a specific law, with the employer putting the employee to the choice of breaking the law or losing [her] job"). In this appeal the employee contends that the trial court erred both in dismissing the complaint as to Jaquith and in ruling that the complaint did not make out a case under the Adams exception. We need not decide the first question because we are satisfied the trial court correctly concluded that the employee failed to establish entitlement to relief pursuant to the Adams exception. *fn1 Accordingly, we affirm.


The facts presented to the trial court, which came in the form of an affidavit and deposition of Mandsager, the deposition of Jaquith, and affidavits submitted by several employees of PECI, *fn2 were essentially undisputed. They showed that PECI was a nonprofit organization in the District of Columbia which operates news services, reporting on matter relating to environmental and national security issues. Jaquith was PECI's president. PECI employed a bureau chief, several reporters and a small support staff. Most of its funding came from foundation grants; however, a small amount was received from a few individual donors.

Mandsager was hired as an at-will employee in June 1995. Her duties were essentially clerical, requiring her to assist Jaquith in performing his duties. In his deposition, Jaquith testified that Mandsager failed to complete her assignments, made material mistakes in her work and began to take on tasks and projects that had not been assigned to her. Jaquith also testified that on November 7 he decided to fire Mandsager and on that date he began taking steps to find a replacement. Those efforts were not immediately successful and Mandsager was still employed on November 16, 1995, the date she was terminated.

The events that Mandsager claims led to her firing began in mid-October when she was assigned the task of assembling and mailing the "end-of-the-year" solicitation seeking contributions from individuals. Mandsager's duties included updating the database of the mailing list, ascertaining the disclosures that the various states required to be included in the solicitations, and the preparing of envelopes. Because PECI had not completed the process of registering as a charitable organization in all of the states to which it expected to send mailings, Mandsager was also assigned the task of collecting the necessary information and completing the forms required by the states to be filed.

Mandsager testified on deposition that she learned, for the first time on November 14, 1995, that PECI was not registered in either Maryland or Virginia, two states to which solicitations were to be sent. She brought those facts to Jaquith's attention and she claimed he became upset with her when she [706 A2d Page 41]

informed him that she had spoken to officials in each state concerning PECI's failure to register. *fn3 Mandsager averred that she herself then became upset and informed Jaquith that she wished to discuss the matter the next day. Mandsager maintains that "her actions and demeanor were such that any reasonable person in [Jaquith's] position would have interpreted her words and actions as a refusal to send the mailing and would have concluded that she did not intend to proceed with the mailing as instructed by her employer."

Mandsager called in sick the next day, but on November 16th she arrived at work before Jaquith and learned that he had called in with instructions which she later described in two different ways. In her deposition, given on August 21, 1996, she testified that the message from Jaquith instructed her "to continue putting together disclosure statements and continue prepping the mailing." In her affidavit in opposition to summary judgment which was sworn to on September 23, 1996, she averred that Jaquith's instruction was that she should "proceed with the mailing." Mandsager then drafted a memorandum captioned "End of year mailing" for Jaquith, in which she discussed, among other points, possible solutions to the problems posed by PECI's failure to register. Specifically, Mandsager pointed out that registration might not be necessary for those states where donations were minimal. She also recommended in her memorandum that there be no mailings to states where PECI had not registered and where it might have sufficient donors to trigger the registration requirement. She agreed in her deposition, however, that if the registrations were filed before the mailings were sent there would be no violation.

Later that day, Mandsager and Jaquith met to discuss the contents of the memo. Mandsager suggested several ways the mailing could be accomplished without violating the law such as determining whether there were exceptions to the registration requirement, or by ensuring the necessary registration papers were filed before any mailing. Mandsager admits that at no time was she instructed, during that meeting, to send out a mailing that violated any state law. She also acknowledged that she never refused to make the mailing. Mandsager and Jaquith then began discussing Mandsager's performance in general, including her failure to obtain the necessary registrations, *fn4 but without any further reference to the mailing. At the conclusion of that discussion, Jaquith informed her that she should either resign or be fired. She chose the latter. This action followed.


At the time Mandsager was discharged, the long-standing rule in the District of Columbia, other than as set forth in Adams, was that "an employer may discharge an at-will employee at any time and for any reason, or for no reason at all." Thigpen, supra, 657 A.2d at 771. In Adams we recognized a narrow exception which allowed a fired employee to sue "for wrongful discharge when the sole reason for the discharge is the employee's ...

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