Washington is an "at-will" employment state. This means that absent an employment contract, the employment relationship is presumed to be "at-will." Subsequently, either employer or employee may terminate the work relationship so long as the reason for doing so is not illegal. Therefore, it can be somewhat challenging to determine who is at fault in an "at-will" termination.
However, there are some exceptions to the at-will rule. For example, if a Washington employer fires an employee for discriminatory reasons, a breach of employment contract, or in retaliation for exercising their employee rights, a Washington employee may have a legal claim against the employer. For discriminatory purposes, Washington employers cannot discriminate based on race, color, national origin, sex, pregnancy, religion, disability, age, marital status, AIDS/HIV, or sickle cell trait
Under federal law, employers cannot fire an employee based on a protected characteristic such as race, color, national origin, sex, pregnancy, religion, age, disability, and citizenship status.
In the state of Washington, the at-will presumption may be overcome if the employer made clear and unambiguous statements of job security to the employee. This is best satisfied by a written employment contract that outlines termination procedures very clearly.
Even when the employment relationship is "at-will," there are certain exceptions that give rise to a wrongful termination claim. Washington employment laws provide "exceptions" that include:
- Contractual Violations: Employer cannot fire an employee when the firing results in the breach of a contractual agreement. These include breaches of employment contracts, collective bargaining agreements, or policies contained in company manuals or handbooks.
- Statutory Exceptions: Employer cannot fire an employee if the termination violates a statute. Statutory violations include discrimination and violations of whistleblower laws (i.e. firing an employee who reports company misconduct.)
- Public Policy Violations: Some types of terminations are illegal because they go against public policy. These are claims are generally allowed in four situations:
- Firing a worker for refusing to participate in an illegal act
- Firing a worker for performing a public obligation (such as jury duty)
- Firing an employee who is exercising their legal rights (such as filing for workers’ compensation)
- Firing an employee who reports company misconduct (i.e. whistleblowing)
Each of these different categories may require a different standard of proof. For example, statutory violations will be analyzed according the statute in question. On the other hand, a breach of employment contract will likely depend on the individual contract terms. Most wrongful termination claims in Washington are based on discrimination or harassment.
Wrongful termination claims in Washington depend on whether all of the facts that led to the termination would create a wrongful termination. If the employer’s motivation in firing the employee was unlawful, then the employee may bring a wrongful termination claim even if the employee is an at-will employee.
Since some of these "at-will" wrongful termination exceptions may fall into more than one category, you may wish to consult with an employment attorney who can help organize your claim. Your attorney can help you recover losses, back pay, reinstatement to your previous job position, and other damages such as punitive and distress damages. A qualified Washington lawyer can provided you more information if there is a legal basis for a claim.