wrongful termination meeting. man in a suit looking at a paper and woman behind him on the computer. Important meeting

Wrongful Termination or At-Will?

Often times there is news about a person claiming “wrongful termination,” when it could simply be an “at-will” termination. There is a huge difference between the two “terminations.” One word yields the answer – “because.”

What Sometimes Seems “Wrong” is Not Illegal

Terminations at work occur all the time. Sometimes a termination is unfair. Sometimes it seems down right wrong. But yet the employer may have legally terminated the employee at will.  At-will employment means that either party, the employer or the employee, can end the employment arrangement at any time for any reason – so long as it’s not an unlawful reason. If you are not covered by either a union or employment contract, then you are an at-will employee. 

Assuming no contract, at-will is the starting point.  Then the question becomes whether the employer violated any law that protected the employee’s rights. A claim of “wrongful termination” does not exist by itself. You must identify a specific law protecting employees’ rights that the employer violated in carrying out the termination.  

One of the most common laws that is violated at work is the right to equal employment opportunities, i.e., the right not to be discriminated against. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) explains that it is illegal to mistreat or to fire an employee because of certain characteristics, called “protected classes.” These are race, sex, religion, age, disability, and national origin. If an employer fires someone because of that person’s race, then the at-will doctrine no longer applies.  The key to the entire analysis hinges on the word “because.”

#1 Termination: “Wrongful” or Policy Violation?

It is not always easy to determine whether a termination was “wrongful” or simply at-will. A woman filed a suit against Texas City for wrongful termination alleging an  unconstitutional drug policy. Over time the woman had taken four random drug tests based on the city’s drug-testing policy. However, she refused the fifth drug test, claiming that it violated her constitutional rights.  She was fired for refusing to take the drug test. Based on the Houston Chronicle’s article, “Texas City maintains a written policy that allows for the random drug testing of all employees regardless of reasonable suspicion. According to the written policy, refusal to take a random and suspicion-less drug rest will result in the employee’s termination.”

The jury will hear and decide the facts at trial. The jury then will decide whether the woman was fired because of a constitutional violation or because she violated the employer’s policy.

#2 Termination:  “Wrongful” or Policy Violation?

In a notable incident involving the COVID-19 vaccine, a physician employed by Harris County was accused of stealing 9 doses of the Moderna vaccine. At the end of the day the doctor tried to find persons to take the last 9 doses before the time limit for effectiveness of the vaccine expired, according to the Houston Chronicle. After contacting other workers and police and also confirming with his supervisor that no patient at the hospital needed a vaccine, he contacted persons via his cell phone and administered the vaccine to them, plus the final dose to his chronically ill wife.

Harris County fired the doctor after public health leaders determined he had violated a county policy by removing doses from a vaccination site. The physician claims that he tried to offer the remaining vaccine to anyone and everyone on site and that if the vaccine had not been used within the required time period, it would have been destroyed. Those 9 persons would have gone without vaccination that day. He claims his termination was wrongful and unjust. 

Obviously, if the facts are as the doctor has explained, his actions sound laudable. But the question still remains: Did Harris County violate any law that protected the doctor’s rights in doing what he did? If not, with no contract his termination was at-will.

We must watch the news to find out the answer.

Clear as Mud

The point of these 2 examples is that what may appear to be a “wrongful termination” cannot be decided on a bare minimum of facts. Gardner Employment Law has examined hundreds, if not thousands, of termination claims. Some are wrongful; many are at-will.  

If you’ve been terminated, we can offer legal advice to help you make a decision – whether it was wrongful and, if so, what to do. Give us a call.

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