Wrongful Termination, At-Will Employment, and Exceptions

Posted by Michael E. Lyons | Apr 04, 2019 | 0 Comments

Losing a job, or firing an employee, is rarely an easy experience. Often, a terminated employee may feel like they were fired unfairly, or for no reason. However, under certain circumstances, it is illegal to fire someone if the termination was based on protected criteria. This is known as “wrongful termination,” and can require a lawsuit to settle the dispute.

What is “wrongful termination”?

According to The Law Dictionary, wrongful termination (or wrongful dismissal) is defined as “termination of work contract with no due process and violating contract terms.” In simpler terms, wrongful termination happens when an employee is fired for a reason that breaks their contract or is unfair. However, it's important to note that D.C., Maryland, and Virginia are all at-will employment states, so a disgruntled employee cannot claim wrongful termination if they were laid off,  or fired because they didn't get along with management.

What is “at-will employment”?

At-will employment means that an employment arrangement can end at any time, either the employee can quit or the employer can fire the employee for any reason that isn't illegal. With the exception of Montana, all U.S. states are considered “at-will employment” states. This means that layoffs, dismissal for poor performance, or firing an employee based on personality clashes are all perfectly legal reasons for termination – even if they aren't the most pleasant to experience.

Are there exceptions to “at-will employment”?

Yes. In the same way that companies cannot advertise for jobs based on discriminatory criteria, employers cannot fire their workers based on protected classes like age, gender, nationality, or religion. Similarly, employers cannot terminate employees if doing so violates the state's public policy rules or the terms of the employment contract (which is yet another reason why contracts are so crucial to avoiding legal disputes).

In the DMV, for example, it is illegal to fire an employee because they filed a complaint about the employer, or because they refused to do something illegal at their employer's request. Likewise, if the employee's contract states that they are required to have two weeks' notice of their dismissal, it would be illegal to fire the employee and tell them to pack their desk on the same day.

I reported my boss/company/employer to the government – am I going to get fired?

It is illegal to fire an employee for reporting negligent business practices to the government. If a company breaks the law, a “whistleblower” employee who reports the business is entitled to certain protections, including their own employment.

My boss fired me and said it was because she didn't like me. Can I sue?

You can sue, but you likely won't be successful. While that may not be the most pleasant of reasons to be fired, it is not technically illegal. However if she says she doesn't like you because of your race and that is why she is firing you, then that would be a different story.

I'm considering firing my employee. What do I need to consider before I let them go?

Before you fire an employee, take into consideration the circumstances of their employment. If your company is based in Maryland, Virginia, or Washington, D.C., then you're operating in an “at-will” state, and you have the right to fire any employee for any reason that is not illegal. If you're unsure whether your employee's circumstances qualify for legal termination, give us a call, and we'd be happy to provide legal advice on your specific situation.

At Patriots Law Group, we understand that employment disputes can be stressful. Firing an employee, losing a job, or facing a new job search based on unfair or confusing circumstances can all be pain points if you're unfamiliar with your area's employment laws. If you think your employment may have been wrongfully terminated, or if you're an employer faced with a disgruntled former employee, we are here to fight for you.

DISCLAIMER:  The information above is for general informational purposes only.  No attorney-client relationship is intended or created by this information.  Each individual situation is different and therefore a formal in-person consultation is necessary before any specific advice may be relied upon as appropriate and accurate for a given situation. Please call Patriots Law Group at 301-952-9000 to set up a consultation if you wish to obtain specific legal advice you may rely upon. We serve clients anywhere in the world, with in-person consultations available at our Suitland, MD office — right next to Andrews Air Force Base — for clients in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. 

About the Author

Michael E. Lyons

“As a veteran, I bring my core values of service, integrity, and excellence to every client, every case, every time.” Background: Michael E. Lyons (“Mike”) handles cases in Maryland and Washington D.C. fr...


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