Supreme Court of Puerto Rico Reaffirms that Violence in the Workplace Justifies First Offense Termination

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico recently reaffirmed its previous position that an act of aggression by an employee towards a coworker is sufficient to establish just cause for termination under Puerto Rico's Unjustified Dismissal statute, Act No. 80 of May 30, 1978 ("Act 80"), even when the aggression is a first-time offense.

The plaintiff in Torres Alvarez v. Centro de Patología Avanzada de Puerto Rico, 2015 T.S.P.R. 136, 193 D.P.R. ___ (2015), was hired by a pathology center in 2005 as a physician.  In 2010, she became upset at the center's administrative assistant for what the plaintiff considered failure to follow her instructions.  In a subsequent meeting with the assistant and the center's director, the plaintiff said the administrative assistant's actions had made the plaintiff so furious that she did not know what she was capable of doing to the administrative assistant.  The administrative assistant, who was pregnant, began to cry and left the meeting.  The plaintiff then went to the administrative assistant's office, grabbed her by the arm and tried to pull her out of the office.  The director intervened to separate the two while several other employees observed the commotion. As a result of the incident, the plaintiff was terminated.  The plaintiff had no prior discipline in her file and her supervisors had been satisfied with her work prior to the incident.

The plaintiff sued the employer, alleging wrongful termination, defamation, libel, and other civil causes of action. After trying the case, the lower court dismissed all claims. On appeal, however, the Puerto Rico Court of Appeals reversed the trial court's judgment with regard to the wrongful termination claim. Specifically, the appellate court determined that the employer failed to prove that the offense was sufficiently serious or dangerous to justify a termination for a first-time offense. The appellate court added that the employer did not prove that the plaintiff's conduct constituted an aggression or a threat, or that there was a pattern of inappropriate or disorderly conduct. Among the factors the court of appeals considered was that the affected employee had declined to pursue criminal charges against the plaintiff.

After granting the employer's petition for a writ of certiorari, the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico reversed the appellate court's decision, holding that the termination was supported by just cause. While acknowledging that Act 80 disfavors terminations for a first-time offense, the Court explained that Act 80 "does not require that an employer wait until an employee that threatened and battered a coworker during work hours and in the company's premises commit a second or third threat or aggression prior to termination."  The Court noted that this conclusion is supported by a line of cases in which it had previously found just cause based upon a first-time offense.  The Court further stated "an employer does not have to allow a work environment where employees cannot work in peace and with the tranquility of not being threatened or attacked by their coworkers" and that Act 80 "cannot be a straitjacket for an employer who simply acts diligently in protection of the security of other workers." In its analysis, the Court stressed that a bodily injury requiring medical attention is not a prerequisite for justifying termination.  Any manifestation of physical aggression, the Court said, transgresses the elementary principles of a healthy society. The Court emphasized also that the analysis of whether a termination was justified does not depend on the outcome of a related criminal proceeding.  

Also important in the Court's analysis was that the employer's internal work rules and policies provided that violence in the workplace constituted cause for disciplinary action. The Supreme Court emphasized that employers are at liberty to adopt rules deemed necessary for the company's proper functioning, as long as such policies are reasonable. The Court recognized an employer's prerogative to specify in such rules and regulations offenses it deems so grave as to merit immediate termination.

This reasoning was echoed by the concurring opinion, which cautioned that courts should not approach such cases as if they were human resources departments instead of courts of law. Rather than substitute their own business judgment for the employer's decision, the concurring opinion stated, the courts' duty in a case involving a first-time offense termination is to determine whether: (1) the termination is supported by the employer's rules and regulations; (2) those rules and regulations are reasonable; and (3) the conduct that led to the termination is so detrimental that it affects the normal functioning of the business.

Although this case deals with workplace violence, its reasoning may be extrapolated to other serious offenses warranting immediate termination. Employers in Puerto Rico should consider revising their rules and policies to put employees clearly on notice of matters that the employer deems necessary for the proper functioning of the business, including specification of offenses or violations that the employer considers so serious as to justify immediate termination. Employers who currently do not have such policies in place should consider adopting them.

Information contained in this publication is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or opinion, nor is it a substitute for the professional judgment of an attorney.