Can I be fired from my job for no reason?

Recently on our legal forum a user asked, “I have been employed at my company for five years. Last week I showed up to work on time as usual, and I was told that I no longer had a job. I don’t understand how they can let me go if I did not do anything wrong. When I asked my boss why they were firing me he didn’t have a good reason. Is this legal?”

Overview of at-will employment

What you have described is referred to as “at-will employment.” At-will employment is the legal concept where an employer can fire an employee at any time for any reason without prior notice.

Furthermore, if an at-will employment relationship exists, assuming there was no discrimination or other wrongful termination issues, the employee does not have any legal recourse against their employer for the termination.

While this may seem unfair to the employee and may generally favor the employer, there are benefits for the employee as well. For example, not only does the employer not have to have a reason for letting you go, you can also leave your job at any time for any reason (assuming you do not have a contractual obligation to stay).

Reasons an employee cannot be terminated at-will:

Although at-will employment is the most common type of employment arrangement in most states, there are some exceptions to the at-will employment doctrine. If you believe that any of these exceptions exist in your firing you may have the right to file a wrongful termination suit against your employer. Let’s look at the most common exceptions.

  • You have a contract for employment.

If you have a signed employment contract with your employer, your employer is barred from firing you at will. In fact, the contract should expressly state the grounds for termination in addition to other aspects of the employment including the length of your employment, your job responsibilities, the methods for resolving disputes, and the benefits you will receive in addition to wages.

It’s important to understand that a contract may not have to be written to exist, but instead, can simply be implied. Although more difficult to prove, some implied contracts have been found to exist in an employee handbook, for example, where the text may imply the employee’s employment relationship is not at will. Note, an employment contract will supersede at-will employment regulations.

  • Employers cannot violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act or the American with Disabilities Act.

Employers may fire at-will but only if their actions do not violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Specifically, an employer cannot fire an employer based on race, national origin, religion, color, or sex. 

Employers also must be careful that they do violate the American with Disabilities act and fire or discriminate against someone with a disability. For example, if you were fired because you were unable to walk and your employer could have made “reasonable accommodations” which would have allowed you to keeping working but they refused, you might be able to prove your employer was discriminating against you because of your disability.

  • Employers cannot fire someone or retaliate against an employee for certain actions.

It’s not uncommon for an employee to take an action against an employer which may cause difficulty for the employer. For example, let’s say your employer asked you to do something illegal or not report something illegal that the business was doing? Instead, you decided to report their illegal business practices to the authorities. It is illegal for the employer then to decide to fire you because you were a whistleblower.

Additionally, an employer is barred from firing you because you took protected FMLA leave, you refused to do something illegal, you filed a discrimination suit, or you filed a workers’ compensation claim. Unfortunately, under some conditions, it could be difficult to prove that the firing was for one of these reasons.

  • Implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing.

Finally, employers are not allowed to fire you just to avoid certain responsibilities such as paying for retirement other commissions. Although this might be difficult to prove, if you believe your employer has not operated with good faith you may need to discuss your case with an employment lawyer.

Bottom Line:

At-will employment has grown in popularity over the last several decades. Although it gives flexibility to both the employer and the employee, it does seem to favor the employer who is able to fire an employee at any time and to change the terms of employment, including benefits and wages, without consequence or notice.

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