For No Reason At All: Wrongful Discharge in an At-Will World

2019-07-17T13:30:11-06:00 July 17th, 2019|

We often hear of companies citing the “at-will” employment rule when terminating an employee. But what does this really mean? The most common definition of this term is that it describes an arrangement where the employer or the employee can terminate the employment relationship for no reason at all, or for an arbitrary or irrational reason.

While technically true, this is usually a trap for bad bosses. In the real world, people do not wake up in the morning and randomly decide to end another person’s career for absolutely no reason at all. Instead, when someone wants to fire someone for an unethical, illegal, discriminatory, or retaliatory reason, they usually just cite the at-will employment rule and assume it acts as a get-out-of-jail-free card.

If you think you have been wrongfully terminated, contact the employment attorneys at Herrmann & Murphy.

The employee at-will rule is not without limits. A valid claim exists for wrongful discharge if the employee is fired for an unlawful reason or a purpose that violates North Carolina public policy. But what is North Carolina public policy? Public policy has been defined to be “the principle of law that holds no citizen can lawfully do that which has a tendency to be injurious to the public or against the public good.” Not a very helpful definition, is it?

The definition of “public policy” does not include a laundry list of what is or is not “injurious to the public or against the public good,” but at the very least public policy is violated when an employee is fired in violation of express policy declarations contained in the North Carolina General Statutes. North Carolina courts have declined to create a “bright line” test for determining when the termination of an at-will employee violates public policy. Instead, courts analyze wrongful termination cases on a case-by-case basis.

While there is no precise list of illegal motivations that will provide a claim for wrongful termination, you might have a claim if your boss was motivated by employee discrimination or retaliation, or if you were fired for any of the following reasons:

  • Age
  • Race
  • Skin Color
  • National Origin
  • Gender
  • Religion
  • Pregnancy
  • Disability
  • Military Service
  • HIV Status
  • Genetic Diseases
  • Sexual Orientation
  • Gender Identity
  • Testifying in Court
  • Domestic Violence Court Dates
  • Smoking
  • Reporting Fraud
  • Reporting Unsafe Working Conditions
  • Reporting Wage and Hour Violations
  • Reporting a Dangerous Condition at Work
  • Refusing to Lie
  • Getting Hurt at Work
  • Reporting Public Health Risks
  • Calling the Police
  • Refusing to Break the Law

The reason the at-will rule is so dangerous for bad bosses is because of the way these claims work in court.

If you think you have been wrongfully terminated, contact the employment attorneys at Herrmann & Murphy.

Prima Facie Case

When you bring a wrongful discharge or wrongful termination claim you first must allege what you believe was the illegal reason your company fired you. You then must establish what courts call a “prima facie” case or a first impression. This will be different depending on what type of wrongful reason you cite as the basis of your claim. Usually this requires plaintiffs to show that they engaged in protected activity or belong to a protected class and that there is some reason to believe that they were treated differently because of the protected activity or class.

Legitimate Reason

Once the plaintiff establishes this first impression, the burden shifts to the company to explain why it fired the plaintiff. Here is where the trouble begins for an employer that cited the employee at-will rule rather than explaining the real reason for its actions. The company needs a legitimate, legal reason for firing the plaintiff. “This is an at-will state” is not going to work. Why did the company choose to fire this person on a whim that day? Where the employer instead points to some actual reason for firing the employee, the burden then shifts back to the plaintiff.

Pretext

In this last stage of the case, the plaintiff must show that the reason the company cited for firing the employee was not actually the real reason for the firing. This is different than proving the company was wrong about its reason. The plaintiff must prove that the company did not actually act for the reason it claims it acted. This can be done by showing that the manager involved treated similarly situated employees better than they treated the plaintiff or where the company gives different reasons for the termination at different times. This is where the company citing the “at-will” rule hurts them the most because they will certainly have to come up with another reason to defend the litigation.

If the plaintiff proves that the company lied about the reason it says it fired the plaintiff, the jury is then entitled to believe that they were lying to cover-up an illegal reason. Thus, the plaintiff can win their wrongful termination case by merely proving that the company lied.

People often assume they have a claim for wrongful termination where they were fired for something they did not do or where their manager was otherwise wrong to hold that employee responsible for something that happened. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Courts defer to businesses about termination decisions, unless those decisions were motivated by some illegal reason such as discrimination. A company can be wrong about the reason it is firing someone, so long as the company is really motivated by whatever it is claiming as the reason for firing.

But if your employer has told you that you were fired because this is an “at-will” state, you should reach out to a wrongful termination attorney to see if you have a wrongful discharge claim.

If you think you have been wrongfully terminated, contact the employment attorneys at Herrmann & Murphy.

Reach out for a consultation today.

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