Supreme Court Of Puerto Rico Reaffirms That Violence In The Workplace Justifies First Offense Termination

Author:Ms Ana Rosado-Frontanés and Gabriel Maldonado-González
Profession:Littler Mendelson

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...

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