Exceptions to the At-Will Rule

Where You Need a Lawyer:

(This may not be the same place you live)

At No Cost! 

 What Is At-Will Employment?

At-will employment is used in employment agreements to describe the employment status of an employee. Specifically, the term means that the employee is being hired for an indefinite period of time. The term also means that their employer has the right to terminate them at any time without cause, for any or no reason. Alternatively, this also means that the employee has the right to terminate their own employment at any time, and for any or no reason.

Essentially, neither the employer nor the employee need to have a justified reason for terminating the employment relationship. Any reason will be considered sufficient for termination, including having no reason at all, so long as it is not illegal such as discrimination. A considerable issue with at-will employment is that regardless of whether it is the employee or employer who decides to terminate the employment relationship, the other party has no way to prevent it from happening.

Additionally, at-will employees are subject to an employer’s decisions. What this means is that the employer has the right to change the terms of the employee’s employment without notice, and will not face any consequences for doing so. An example of this would be how an employer can terminate an at-will employee’s benefits or reduce their wages, and cannot be penalized for carrying out these decisions.

Although at-will employment is legally considered to be the default status of employment by American courts, an at-will employee’s status can be altered if both the employer and the employee agree to such a change in a legal contract.

When Is The Termination Of An At-Will Employee Considered To Be Wrongful?

If an employer terminates an employee for a wrongful reason, which would be contrary to state or federal law or public policy, the termination could legally be considered wrongful. Examples of wrongful termination include firing an employee on the basis of discrimination, retaliation, and disability.

Some other exceptions to the at-will rule that would facilitate a claim for wrongful termination include:

  • Public Policy: Most states recognize a public policy exception to the at-will rule. An example of this would be how 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, implied or otherwise, the conditions of employment are more defined. As such, employers must have reasonable cause for termination. Courts frequently honor implied contracts based on direct statements from employers or in employee handbooks. These statements may outline conditions or procedures for firing, which the court would then enforce before a termination would be considered to be lawful; and/or
  • Breach Of Good Faith And Fair Dealing: This requirement is considerably more broad, and imposes a requirement of good faith and fair dealing into every employment relationship. This has the effect 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.

Some other examples of exceptions to at-will employment termination include:

It is important to note that not all states follow the above exceptions, and some states may have their own additional requirements for at-will termination exceptions.

It is possible to fire an at-will employee, even if they have worked for their employer for an extended amount of time. However, some of the previously mentioned exceptions may be able to protect a long-time employee from termination. An example of this would be how if the at-will employee claims that there was an implied contract that promised job security, barring cause to fire them, they may be able to use the amount of years that they worked for their employer as proof of the implied contract.

What Are Some Of The Benefits To At-Will Employment?

There are some notable advantages to at-will employment. According to the general terms of an at-will employment agreement, an employee may quit their job at any time without facing repercussions for breaking their employment contract. Additionally, at-will employment provides an employee with the leverage they need to request a promotion or raise. This is due to the fact that the employer knows that they can quit and go elsewhere if they do not receive what they are asking for.

In comparison, an employer also benefits from an at-will employment agreement for similar reasons. As previously mentioned, they can legally fire an at-will employee for almost any reason. Additionally, they can change the employee’s job description or work schedule without providing notice, and without the fear of facing any consequences for doing so.

Because the advantages of an at-will employment agreement simultaneously serve as the disadvantages for the opposing party, you should contact an employment attorney if you have any questions regarding your employment arrangement. They can inform you of all of the rights you have under an at-will employment agreement, as well as review the employment agreement before you sign it.

What Should I Know About Wrongful Termination?

Wrongful termination may also be referred to as unlawful termination, and is an employment law term that refers to when an employer fires an employee for illegal or unauthorized reasons. These include reasons that:

  • Violate federal, state, and/or local laws;
  • Go against public policy; and/or
  • Breach the terms of an employment agreement.

Wrongful termination can also occur when an employer fires an employee who has refused to obey work instructions that are considered to be illegal. Examples of this could include unlawful activities such as ignoring safety regulations for a specific job task, or asking them to commit even more serious crimes such as a felony offense of larceny or tax evasion.

One other way an employee can be unlawfully terminated is when an employer ignores their own company’s policies regarding the termination process. An example of this would be if the employer does not follow the proper protocols when releasing the employee from their position.

It is important to note that if an employer terminates an employee in a manner that is considered to be unlawful or illegal, they can face legal consequences for their actions. This might mean that the employer will be required to compensate the employee in some way, including:

  • Reimbursing them in back pay;
  • Reinstating them to their prior position; and/or
  • Paying them monetary compensation for a particular reason.

Generally speaking, an employer does not need to provide an employee with notice before firing them from their job. However, there are two exceptions to this statement.

The first exception would be if there is a valid employment agreement whose terms state that the employer must provide notice before a termination. The second exception would be if it goes against the policies that are contained within a company’s employment handbook.

Do I Need An Attorney For Issues Associated With At-Will Employment?

If you have any questions regarding exceptions to the at-will rule, or are experiencing issues associated with at-will employment, you should consult with an experienced and local contract lawyer.

An attorney will be best suited to helping you understand your state’s specific employment laws, and what your legal options are under those laws. Finally, an employment attorney will also be able to represent you in court, as needed.


16 people have successfully posted their cases

Find a Lawyer