At-will employment is an employment arrangement where the employer can choose to fire the employee at any time and for any reason that is not illegal. Most employment arrangements are at-will.
If the employer terminates an employee for a wrongful reason, contrary to state or federal law or public policy, the termination can be wrongful. Examples of wrongful termination include firing on the basis of discrimination, retaliation, and disability.
Some other exceptions to the at-will rule that would provide a claim for wrongful termination include:
- Public Policy – Most states recognize a public policy exception to the at-will rule, so that if the reason for the firing violates an accepted public policy or state or federal statute, the firing will be considered wrongful. For example, under the public policy exception, it is wrongful for an employer to fire an employee for opposing criminal activities or reporting safety hazards.
- Implied Contract – Many states also recognize an exception where an implied contract for employment has been formed. If an employment contract exists, the conditions of employment are more defined and employers must have good cause for termination. Courts will often find implied contracts based on direct statements from employers or in employee handbooks. These statements could outline conditions or procedures for firing, which the court would then enforce before a termination would be lawful.
- Covenant of Good Faith and Fair Dealing – This requirement is much more broad and reads a requirement of good faith and fair dealing into every employment relationship. The result of this exception is that any firing must be for good cause and the ability to fire employees is strictly limited. However, only eleven states have recognized this exception.
The laws of wrongful termination can be very complex and differ significantly from state to state. Also, many worker’s rights and civil rights laws have detailed procedures and filing deadlines. If you feel that you have been fired for an illegal reason, an experienced employment attorney can help you determine your rights under the law and guide you through the complicated procedures.