The worst thing has happened. Your boss has called you into his office, and he’s fired you. But by all reasonable metrics, you’ve excelled at your job. Maybe you’re the #1 paint salesperson in the company, maybe you exceed your performance metrics at every review, or maybe your manager has told you multiple times that you’re doing a great job. Was your termination wrongful? The answer is, “It depends.” The United States overwhelmingly follows an “at will” interpretation of employment. There are very few exceptions, and those exceptions are not universally accepted by all 50 states. Depending on your state, there may be more or less protection for you as an employee. So, what is at-will employment? What are the exceptions to it? And did you experience wrongful termination?
At Will Employment
At will employment means that both employer and employee are able to terminate employment at any time. This is excellently expressed by the case of County of Giles v. Wines, 262 Va. 68, 72 (Va. 2001), which states that “an employment relationship is presumed to be at-will, which means that the employment term extends for an indefinite period and may be terminated by the employer or employee for any reason upon reasonable notice.” Reasonable notice is generally interpreted as the notice given at the time of firing or quitting. The “any reason” part is very liberally interpreted. You can be fired because your boss doesn’t like how you dress, because of your taste in music, and even because you’re a libra and they’re a scorpio. None of these rises to wrongful termination. How can there be such a thing as wrongful termination? Because there are exceptions to at-will employment. Basically, if your boss did not fire you for these reasons, or you cannot reasonably prove that these reasons are why your boss fired you, you likely do not have a case for wrongful termination.
There are several exceptions to at will employment, but the ones I will discuss are as follows; public policy exceptions and statutory exceptions. 42 states have public policy exceptions for at-will employment, and statutory exceptions include both federal statutes and state statute. According to the American Law Institute, in their proposed Restatement (Third) of Employment Law, there are four categories within public policy exceptions; refusing to break the law, reporting a violation of the law, engaging in acts that are in the public interest, or exercising a statutory right. Refusing to break the law is self-explanatory; if you refuse to do something your employer asks you to do something which you know to be against state or federal law, and your employer then fires you, that is wrongful termination. Reporting a violation of the law is also fairly self-explanatory. For example, say your boss tells you that you can’t share your salary with your coworkers or you will be fired. This is a violation of the National Labor Relations Act. Say you then report him to the National Labor Relations Board, and he fires you as a result; this is wrongful termination, because you were reporting your employer for a violation of federal law. Acts in the public interest are a bit less unclear. If you are doing something that will better your community or otherwise increase the general welfare of the public, and your boss fires you, that can be wrongful termination. Let’s say you witness a violent crime, and you are called upon by the state to testify before a judge and jury the details of that crime; if your employer fires you for missing work, that is wrongful termination. The fourth category of public policy exceptions, exercising a statutory right, is also straightforward; either congress or your state legislature has enacted a law that offers you, as a worker, employment protections. If you decide to invoke that protection, your employer cannot fire you or else they will have violated the law. Let’s take the Occupation and Safety and Health Administration for example; congress has given them the power to create law that governs the safety of construction sites. If you, a construction worker, see that your boss is requiring you to do things that violate the standards set by OSHA, you can file a complaint against them. If your boss should fire you for filing that complaint, that constitutes wrongful termination.
Statutory exceptions are explicit, and vary from state to state. Things like equal employment laws, disability rights laws, laws governing unions, and various statutes that offer specific protection from reprisal from your employer offer protection against wrongful termination.
How a wrongful termination attorney can help
The exceptions that I have listed are only examples of the statutory and common law exceptions to the employment at will doctrine. The protections afforded to you by state law or by state interpretation of common law will vary depending on where you live. A wrongful termination attorney can help you navigate not only the complicated web of federal and state statutes which govern employment, but also the complicated and difficult to parse common law exceptions and how they are governed by your state, and even sometimes by your specific city or county’s laws.
For more information, contact a local law firm such as Mughal Law Firm, PLLC.