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Can At-Will Employees Bring Wrongful Discharge Claims?

At-will employment means that either the employee or the employer may end the employment relationship at any time, for any reason, or no reason at all. All employment relationships are presumed to be at will unless there is a contract between the employee and the employer stating a specific duration of employment. A contract that is for an indefinite period generally will be considered as creating an at-will employment relationship.

At-Will Employment and Wrongful Discharge Claims

The at-will employment relationship can make it difficult for an employee to bring a wrongful discharge or termination claim against an employer. In some states, an at-will employee can bring a claim against an employer for wrongful discharge if the employee can prove the employer violated public policy by firing the employee. However, some states do not recognize a cause of action for wrongful termination of an at-will employee.

Generally, for the employee to be able to prove the employer violated a public policy by terminating employment, the public policy must be substantial and important. Public policies generally fall into one of three categories:

  • The employee exercised a statutory right or obligation
  • The employee refused to engage in an illegal activity
  • The employee reported criminal conduct to supervisors and/or outside agencies

Some jurisdictions require that the public policy be recognized by the legislature and appear in the state constitution or statutes. Others will allow public policies that have been recognized by judicial or administrative declarations.

Some jurisdictions recognize the concept of implied good faith and fair dealing in an at-will employment relationship. In these jurisdictions, the employer is prohibited from terminating an at-will employee for a bad faith reason, such as fraud or misrepresentation by the employer.

While tests to prove wrongful discharge claims for at-will employees vary by jurisdiction, in general, the burden falls on the employee to show:

  • The existence of a substantial and important public policy
  • The employee participated in the type of conduct the policy was meant to encourage
  • The employer knew or believed the employee participated in this type of conduct
  • Retaliation motivated the employer to dismiss the employee
  • The employer’s dismissal of the employee undermines the public policy

Seek Legal Advice

An experienced employment law attorney can determine whether your state’s laws permit wrongful discharge claims for at-will employees and the legal remedies that may be available to you. For more information on at-will employment, contact a knowledgeable attorney in your area today.

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