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What does “employment at-will” mean?

“Employment at-will” is a term used to describe a type of employment relationship where either the employer or the employee can terminate the working relationship at any time, for any reason, and without prior notice. In this arrangement, employees are not under a contractual obligation to stay with the company for a specific duration, and employers are not obligated to keep employees for any set period.

This means that an employer can decide to let an employee go without providing a reason, as long as the reason isn’t illegal, such as discrimination. Similarly, an employee can choose to leave their job without having to give a detailed explanation.

While employment at-will provides flexibility for both parties, it also means that job security is not guaranteed. Employees may be terminated even if they are performing well, and employers may face the risk of high turnover. However, there are certain exceptions and limitations to employment at-will.

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What are exceptions to the “employment at-will” doctrine?

While employment at-will is a common principle, there are several important exceptions that place limitations on the employer’s ability to terminate employees without cause. These exceptions may provide legal protections to employees in certain situations, but employees should consult employment law lawyers regarding their particular situation. Here are some key exceptions to employment at-will which would result in a firing becoming a wrongful termination:

  1. Express Contract Exception: In situations where there is a written employment contract specifying the duration of employment or outlining reasons for termination, the terms of the contract take precedence over the employment at-will doctrine. Employers are bound by the conditions stated in the contract.
  2. Implied Contract Exception: If an employer makes specific promises regarding job security, promotions, or disciplinary procedures, and the employee reasonably relies on these promises, an implied contract may be formed. In such cases, termination may be subject to the terms outlined in the implied contract.
  3. Public Policy Exception: Employees are protected from termination when it violates established public policy. This includes situations where employees are fired for refusing to engage in illegal activities, reporting employer misconduct or criminal activity, or exercising legal rights.
  4. Statutory Protections Against Employment Discrimination: Various federal and state laws provide specific protections against wrongful termination based on protected characteristics. For example, anti-discrimination laws, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (“ADEA”), and Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (“GINA”) prohibit firing employees based on characteristics such as race/color discrimination, gender discrimination, gender identity discrimination, sexual orientation discrimination, national origin discrimination, religious discrimination, disability discrimination, or age discrimination.
  5. Statutory Protections Against Retaliation: Federal and state laws also provide specific protections against retaliation for an employee engaging in protected activity. The previously listed anti-discrimination statutes make it unlawful for an employer to fire an employee for opposing, reporting, or participating in an investigation relating to discrimination or sexual harassment. Likewise, the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) prevents employers from retaliating against employees who complain about overtime or minimum wage violations. Employers cannot retaliate against employees for using FMLA. The National Labor Relations Act prevents employers from firing employees who engaged in concerted activities even if they are not part of a union. And, under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (“USERRA”), it is unlawful to fire an employee who is called upon to serve active duty or as a reserve member of our armed forces.
  6. Whistleblower Protections: Employees who report illegal activities or employer misconduct are often protected from retaliation. Whistleblower laws shield employees from termination for exposing wrongdoing within the organization. Depending upon the statute involved, there may be additional requirements before the protection kicks in – such as, for example, the need to make a report in writing.
  7. Union Agreements: Employees covered by collective bargaining agreements or union contracts may have additional protections against arbitrary termination. These agreements often outline specific procedures for discipline and termination.

It’s important to note that the legal landscape varies by jurisdiction, and the specific exceptions to employment at-will may differ based on state laws and court decisions. Employees who believe they have been wrongfully terminated should seek legal advice to determine the applicability of these exceptions in their particular circumstances.

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Can you provide a recent example of employment at-will?

Let’s take a look at Davis v. Hemmersbach US, L.L.C., No. 23-30806, 2024 WL 229258 (5th Cir. Jan. 22, 2024). The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit’s opinion starts with, “Carlos Davis, proceeding pro se …” Pro se is a Latin term used in law that means representing oneself without an attorney. No opinion that starts this way ever goes favorably for the employee. In this case, the employer, Hemmersbach U.S. LLC, asked Davis to use his private space to store materials for their client. Davis said no. Hemmersbach then offered Davis money. He said no again. Hemmersbach fired the uncooperative Davis.

So, Davis sued and in his lawsuit charge: “I was wrongfully terminated due to retalliation (sic) because I would not allow them to sue my private space as a storage for one of their clients. After attempting (2) times, with the second time consisting of a bribery, I was released from my job.”

Did Davis have an absolute right to deny the use of his space to the employer? Absolutely. Did the employer have a right to fire Davis for not cooperating? Yep.

Davis was an employee at-will. The employer had the right to fire Davis for any reason or no reason even if everyone thinks it is unfair – as long as the reason did not violate the law. Firing Davis for failing to allow his private space to be used does not fall within any of the above exceptions. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals had no trouble affirming the District Court, which held:

Not every form of perceived retaliation is actionable, and Plaintiff has not alleged facts that indicate the plausibility that he was subjected to a form of retaliation that gives rise to a recognized claim. Plaintiff makes a generic assertion of wrongful termination. There is no such claim under federal law, and under Louisiana’s employment-at-will doctrine an employer is generally at liberty to dismiss an employee at any time for any reason without incurring liability for the discharge. That right is tempered by federal and state laws such as Title VII, but when they are not applicable, there is no general claim for wrongful termination.

Davis v. Hemmersbach US LLC, No. 23-CV-864, 2023 WL 7204528, at *2 (W.D. La. Oct. 12, 2023), report and recommendation adopted, No. 5:23-CV-0864, 2023 WL 7196412 (W.D. La. Nov. 1, 2023).

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How do I know if I’m an employee at-will or was wrongfully fired?

It is crucial to consult with an attorney focuses exclusively on employment law to accurately assess whether you are an employee at will or have been wrongfully terminated. Employment law is intricate, and having a dedicated expert can help navigate the complexities of various legal exceptions and protections. Spitz, The Employee’s Law Firm, stands out as the optimal choice due to its unwavering commitment to advocating for employees’ rights. Offering a free initial consultation, Spitz ensures personalized attention to your case, evaluating the specifics to determine the best course of action. With a no fee guarantee, you only pay if they win, emphasizing their dedication to justice and the assurance that your rights are vigorously defended. Choosing Spitz means aligning with a legal team with a proven track record of championing employees in the face of wrongful termination and employment disputes.

Disclaimer

This wrongful termination and employee’s rights blog is provided for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. The employment lawcontent is intended to offer general information and may not reflect the most current legal developments. Reading or interacting with the blog does not establish an attorney-client relationship. Legal issues are complex, and the information here may not be applicable to your individual situation. Always consult with a qualified attorney for advice tailored to your specific circumstances. The views expressed in this blog are the personal opinions of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of any law firm or legal entity. Use of this blog or any information obtained from it is at your own risk. The blog may contain links to third-party websites, and these links are provided solely for convenience; the inclusion of such links does not imply endorsement or approval of the linked content.

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