Best Ohio Wrongful Termination Attorney Reply: Can I be fired for refusing to do something illegal? What if I am fired without any justification? Can I sue my employer because I was fired today for no good reason?
As our employment attorneys have discussed on this employment law blog many times before (also here, and here), the at-will employment doctrine allows an employer quite a bit of latitude when terminating employees. At Spitz, The Employee’s Law Firm, we receive call after call from former employees who were terminated with zero notice, such as they showed up to work and were simply told they are not employees there anymore. We also get calls from former employees that were given zero justification for their termination, even when they ask their employer why they are being fired.
This is always a tricky situation because on its face, an employer firing an employee suddenly or without stated justification is unfortunately not unlawful. The at-will employment doctrine allows an employer to terminate an employee without giving them any kind of notice or justification, unless such requirements are provided by contract or union rights.
Even in extreme examples, being terminated without notice is not actionable without some kind of other evidence of discrimination or some kind of unlawful employment practice. In late November of this year, Chicago sports radio host Ben Finfer found out he was being fired, and the station was being shut down, while on the air. Finfer was doing his daily sports show when he found out on Twitter that he would need to be looking for work very soon. Finfer ranted on the air, “We’re doing a live show here. And to be told this way, it’s really a letdown. We’re getting screwed on this one.”
In almost every sense of the word “wrongful,” Finfer was most certainly wrongfully fired. Having to be told you are losing your job as a radio host while you are on the air is quite possibly one of the worst ways to lose your job. However, because of the at-will employment doctrine, Finfer’s termination would not be considered “unlawful” without more evidence showing the termination was motivated by unlawful discrimination or retaliation. That will be hard, if not impossible, in his case because the station was being shut down and everyone was being fired without regard to race, gender or any other protected class.
So, what is the difference between unlawful discrimination and discrimination that is not illegal? The law starts with the basic premise that everyone can be fired for any reason at any time – the “at-will” employment rule. So, for example, your boss can fire you because you are left handed; you manager can fire you because you have red hair; your supervisor can fire you because you think that Star Trek is stupid; and you can even be fired for having a bad hair day.
But, from the “at-will” employment rule, the laws (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Ohio’s R.C. § 4112.99, for example) start carving out exceptions to the “at-will” employment rule. If there are facts that may put your termination into one of these exceptions (such as your race, gender, national origin, religion, age, military status or disability), you likely have a wrongful termination claim based on unlawful discrimination by your employer, boss, manager, supervisor, etc. Besides discrimination, there are other exceptions to the “at-will” employment rule that could make your firing wrongful and allow you to sue your employer. You cannot be fired for refusing to engage in an illegal activity. You employer cannot fire you engaging in a protected activity, such as using Family Medical Leave or filing a Workers’ Compensation Claim after getting hurt at work. Additionally, your boss cannot fire you in retaliation for complaining or opposing Wage Violations, reporting safety violations, or submitting other Whistleblower Claims. There is also a claim for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy, the hsitory of which was explained and reaffirmed by the Ohio Supreme Court in Painter v. Graley:
Both the trial court and the court of appeals analyzed Painter’s claim based on Greeley v. Miami Valley Maintenance Contractors, Inc. (1990), 49 Ohio St.3d 228, 551 N.E.2d 981, which created an exception to the common-law employment at-will doctrine historically followed in Ohio. Traditionally, this doctrine allowed an employer to terminate the employment of his worker “`at will for any cause, at any time whatsoever, even if done in gross or reckless disregard of [an] employee’s rights.’” Phung v. Waste Mgt, Inc. (1986), 23 Ohio St.3d 100, 102, 23 OBR 260, 261-262, 491 N.E.2d 1114, 1116, quoting Peterson v. Scott Constr. Co. (1982), 5 Ohio App.3d 203, 205, 5 OBR 466, 468, 451 N.E.2d 1236, 1239. …
Justice Clifford F. Brown, joined by Justice A.W. Sweeney, argued that Phung’s allegations that his employer fired him as a direct consequence of his reporting legal improprieties described conduct in violation of clear public policy. Justice Brown maintained that “[t]his court, and the citizenry of Ohio, simply cannot tolerate an employer’s retaliatory discharge of an employee under such circumstances.” Id., 23 Ohio St.3d at 107, 23 OBR at 266, 491 N.E.2d at 1120. Justice Brown argued that public policy sufficient to justify an exception to the employment-at-will doctrine could be found in well-established sources such as legislation; administrative rules, regulations or decisions; and judicial decisions. Id.
In Greeley v. Miami Valley Maintenance Contractors, Inc. supra, we expressly recognized a cause of action in tort for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy. Greeley, at paragraph three of the syllabus. We thus expressly acknowledged an exception to the traditional employment-at-will doctrine in Ohio common law. Pursuant to Greeley, a discharged employee has a private cause of action sounding in tort for wrongful discharge where his or her discharge is in contravention of a “sufficiently clear public policy.” Id., 49 Ohio St.3d at 233, 551 N.E.2d at 986 (citing Phung, supra). In Greeley, we recognized that public policy was “sufficiently clear” where the General Assembly had adopted a specific statute forbidding an employer from discharging or disciplining an employee on the basis of a particular circumstance or occurrence.We noted that other exceptions might be recognized where the public policy could be deemed to be “of equally serious import as the violation of a statute.” Id., 49 Ohio St.3d at 235, 551 N.E.2d at 987. …
“Clear public policy” sufficient to justify an exception to the employment-at-will doctrine is not limited to public policy expressed by the General Assembly in the form of statutory enactments. As this court recently noted, “[w]hen the common law has been out of step with the times, and the legislature, for whatever reason, has not acted, we have undertaken to change the law, and rightfully so. After all, who presides over the common law but the courts?” Gallimore v. Children’s Hosp. Med. Ctr. (1993), 67 Ohio St.3d 244, 253, 617 N.E.2d 1052, 1059. Today we reaffirm Greeley and hold that an exception to the employment-at-will doctrine is justified where an employer has discharged his employee in contravention of a “sufficiently clear public policy.” The existence of such a public policy may be discerned by the Ohio judiciary based on sources such as the Constitutions of Ohio and the United States, legislation, administrative rules and regulations, and the common law.
However, if you are terminated without any notice whatsoever and without any history of discipline or performance issues, it certainly raises questions as to whether or not there was some kind of unlawful reason for the termination. Further, if you are not told the reason you are being fired, there is certainly a suspicion that the reason you are being fired could be unlawful.
Spitz, The Employee’s Law Firm understands that being terminated without any notice or not being told the reason you are being fired is extremely difficult. And while not being given notice or justification does not on its own give you a cause of action against your employer, it can lead to a cause of action if coupled with other evidence of discrimination or retaliation. If you are terminated with no notice or justification, you should call an employment attorney and explore what options you have.
If you are searching “I need a lawyer because I have been wrongfully fired or terminated;” or “I have been discriminated against based on my …” race, national origin, gender, age, religion or disability; or even think that you might need an employment lawyer, then it would be best to call the right attorney to schedule a free and confidential consultation at 866-797-6040. Spitz, The Employee’s Law Firm and its attorneys are experienced and dedicated to protecting employees’ rights and solving employment disputes.
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