Johnny Ray Chadd was the city administrator for Lake Ozark. City administrators in Missouri are always a vote or two away from getting fired, and Chadd was on the brink. On a vote to fire him in 2005, after he had served less than one year, the aldermen were deadlocked and the mayor cast the tie-breaking vote to let him go.
Chadd sued, claiming that the applicable Missouri statute and the city ordinance required the vote of a majority of the aldermen to remove him as a city officer. The mayor’s vote was irrelevant. In 2007, the appellate court ordered that Chadd be reinstated. He was rehired and immediately fired by the unanimous vote of the aldermen.
Chadd sued again, seeking back wages for the period between his first firing and the second, also alleging that he was wrongfully terminated. Apparently because Missouri law characterizes the employment relationship as at the will of the employer, Chadd alleged that his termination fell under the vague term “prima facie tort,” a legal theory that has never gotten any traction in Missouri courts.
Chadd didn’t sue for back wages in the first suit, so he was barred from bringing up the issue now under the principle of res judicata. This principle means that courts will not consider claims that either were or could have been raised in a previous suit between the same parties. The trial court indicated that Chadd had been obligated make his claim for back wages in his first suit, where he was successful.
The prima facie tort claim also failed. Missouri’s at-will employment doctrine applies to situations where there is no employment contract for a specific term. A worker cannot win a suit for damages resulting from termination unless the termination violates some other statute, such as a statute protecting whistle-blowers or persons who are fired for filing workers’ compensation or racial discrimination claims, for example. Calling a wrongful termination claim a prima facie tort doesn’t get around the at-will employment doctrine.