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It's rare that an employee can sue for wrongful termination after getting fired from an at-will employer. According to the employment-at-will doctrine, an at-will employer can end the working relationship at any time -- for any reason or no reason, with or without notice. The only basis for a lawsuit is when an employer uses the at-will doctrine to conceal the real reason for terminating an employee. However, it's up to the employee and legal counsel to determine if the circumstances of the termination fall under any of those exceptions.
Although the employment-at-will doctrine isn't codified as federal or state law, individual states and employers consider it common law based on standard practice. An overwhelming number of private-sector employers are at-will companies. The only caveat to the employer's rights under the at-will doctrine is that an employer cannot terminate an employee for discriminatory reasons and use the at-will doctrine as the basis for the termination.
Employment Contract Exception
One of the exceptions to the at-will doctrine pertains to written or implied employment agreements. A written employment contract sets forth the terms and conditions of employment, and most written contracts have a termination clause. The typical termination clause requires advance notice -- usually in writing -- of the intent to terminate the agreement. If there's a valid employment contract between the employer and the employee, the employee could have an actionable cause if the employer uses the at-will doctrine as the basis for termination. Thirty-eight states also recognize an unwritten, implied employment agreement as an exception to the at-will doctrine, according to Charles Muhl, former economist for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in his report "The Employment-At-Will Doctrine: Three Major Exceptions."
Collective Bargaining Agreement Exception
Employees covered under a labor union contract -- referred to as a collective bargaining agreement -- are excepted from employment-at-will. The CBA protects union workers from termination by requiring that employers have just cause for firing an employee. Just cause generally is defined in the CBA. It can include insubordinate behavior that puts the employee and others in harm's way, actions such as intentional misuse of workplace equipment, absenteeism or misconduct. Employers should adhere to the terms of the labor contract instead of exercising their rights under the at-will doctrine, or the employee might be able to sue the employer for violating terms of the agreement.
The chances are higher for an employee being able to sue his employer for being fired after exercising his rights under public policy. Examples of an employee exercising his rights under public policy include filing a workers' compensation claim, whistleblowing or providing truthful testimony against the employer in legal proceedings. Forty-three states recognize the public-policy exception. This could mean an at-will employee in those states may be able to sue an employer if he's fired under the at-will doctrine and able to prove he was fired for exercising his public-policy rights.
Employers who follow the at-will doctrine usually have employment applications, handbooks and other documents and Web pages that contain the standard at-will employment disclaimer. An employee's signature on the application form or acknowledgment form of the company's handbook is proof that the employee has been informed of and agrees to the at-will policy.
Ruth Mayhew has been writing since the mid-1980s, and she has been an HR subject matter expert since 1995. Her work appears in "The Multi-Generational Workforce in the Health Care Industry," and she has been cited in numerous publications, including journals and textbooks that focus on human resources management practices. She holds a Master of Arts in sociology from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Ruth resides in the nation's capital, Washington, D.C.