When an individual other than an employer intentionally interferes with another individual’s employment relationship, and causes them to lose their job, the individual who interferes may be liable for the economic losses which result.
This may also occur when an employer or manager interferes with the employee’s employment relationship. For example, if an employer provides a false negative reference to a prospective new employer or when a supervisor provides a false performance review in order to attempt to get the employee terminated.
An employee who has been the victim of this type of interference may have a common law claim against an employer or an individual manager for tortious interference with an employment expectancy.
What Do I Need to Prove to Sue for Wrongful Interference with Employment Relationship?
The individual who is damaged by the interference, or the employee, will typically be required to prove the following factors in order to prevail in a lawsuit:
- There was an existing employment relationship;
- The individual who caused the interference was a third party to the relationship. In other words, the
- relationship was not between the person damaged and the person who interfered;
- The third party’s conduct interfered with the relationship;
- The third party intended to interfere; and
- The conduct of the third party caused the employee’s termination.
In the majority of states, an employee is also required to prove that the third party individual who interfered was not justified in interfering with that employment relationship. Recently, courts have held that tortious interference with an employment relationship will not be legally actionable without additional wrongdoing in the form of an improper method.
There is no specific definition of an improper method, so examining a state law may assist. In Virginia, courts have held that an improper method includes:
- An action which is illegal or independently tortious;
- A violation of an established standard of a trade;
- Deceit or fraud;
- Unethical conduct;
- Sharp dealing;
- Any action which falls outside of the accepted practice of the rough and tumble world of free market competition.
Can I Sue Even Though I Only Have an “At-Will” Employment Relationship?
Yes, even an at-will employee can still sue for wrongful interference with employment relationship. At-will employment is a term which is used in an employment agreement to describe the employment status of an employee.
More specifically, at-will employment means that an employee is being hired for an indefinite period of time. It also means that the employer has the right to terminate that employee at any time and without cause, or, in other words, for any reason or for no reason at all.
In the alternative, it also means that an employee has the right to terminate their own employment also at any time and for any reason. This means that, essentially, neither an employer or an employee are required to have a justified reason for terminating that employment relationship.
Any reason may be considered a prior basis for the employee’s termination, including not having a particular reason, so long as that reason in not illegal, such as discrimination.
One issue that arises with at-will employment is that, regardless of whether the employee or the employer decides to terminate that employment relationship, the other party has no opportunity to prevent it from occurring. Another issue is that an at-will employee is subject to an employer’s decisions, which means that an employer has the right to change the terms of the employment without notice and without any consequences.
For example, an employer may terminate an at-will employee’s benefits or reduce the employee’s wages, and that employer cannot be penalized for making these decisions. However, there are several exceptions to the at-will termination of an employee.
It may be helpful to consult an employment attorney to determine what an individual’s employment status is, and whether they are an at-will employee. It may also be helpful to determine if any exceptions exist related to the termination of an at-will employee.
What are Some of the Exceptions to At-Will Employment Termination?
As previously noted, an employer is not permitted to terminate an at-will employee for a reason which is illegal. This practice is referred to as wrongful termination.
Wrrongful termination occurs when the termination of an employee:
- Violates local, state, or federal laws;
- Violates the terms of the applicable employment agreement; or
- Is against public policy.
Therefore, some of the exceptions to at-will employment termination include:
- Discrimination, or termination based upon:
- Disability; or
- Other protected characteristics;
- Public policy exceptions, such as termination based on whistleblowing;
- A breach of good faith and fair dealing;
- An implied contact, where an employer represented to an employee that they would be afforded certain protections, such as job security;
- A breach of the employment agreement;
- A violation of the company’s termination procedures; and
- Various other exceptions.
It is important to note that not every state follows the previously discussed exemptions. In addition, some states may have additional requirements for an at-will termination exception.
If an at-will employee is experiencing a possible wrongful termination, it is in their best interest to contact an employment lawyer. A local attorney will be able to provide the individual with an exhaustive list of exceptions as well as help them defend their rights as an at-will employee.
What are Some Examples of Wrongful Interference with Employment Relationship?
There are several examples of what may be considered wrongful interference with employment relationship. If an interfering third party is a co-worker, the interference may take the following forms:
- Direct termination of the employee from their position;
- Complaining regarding the work performance or attitude of the employee to members of management staff;
- Giving an unfavorable or negative work performance review of the employee’s work performance; and
- Threatening to resign unless that specific employee is terminated.
If the party who is interfering is not a co-worker, interference may occur when the interfering party:
- Threatens the employer to terminate the employee;
- Imposes unreasonable burdens upon the employer if they decide to continue to employ that employee; and
- Makes the employee appear undesirable to the employer.
When is Interference Justified?
In general, interference is justified when it is a reasonable and proper means to pursue or protect a legitimate interest. A court will often examine several factors when determining whether or not an act is appropriate, including:
- The nature of the conduct of the interfering party;
- The motive behind the conduct of the interfering party;
- The interest which the interfering party sought to advance;
- The relative social value of the interests of both parties;
- How the interfering party’s conduct relates to the interference; and
- The relationship between the employee and the interfering party.
Should I Hire an Attorney Experienced in Wrongful Interference with Employment Relationship?
It is essential to have the assistance of an employment attorney if you believe you have been terminated from your employment due to an improper act of another individual. Your attorney will advise you regarding your legal rights as well as your likelihood of recovery.
If you have been accused of wrongful interference with employment relationship, your attorney will advise you regarding the laws in your state as well as defenses which may be available to you. Your attorney will also attempt to limit your liabilities as well as defend you in court.