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Can an at-will employee ever be wrongfully terminated from a job?

Some people -- both employees and employers -- have an incomplete understanding of the workplace term "at will," believing that it affords employers unfettered authority to terminate a worker at any time and even for no reason.

Indeed, and while an at-will worker can customarily be terminated from a workplace position without the need for an employer to peg the job loss to a stated reason, at-will language does not give an employer carte blanche to act with a discriminatory purpose.

To wit: If an employer discharges a worker for any reason that runs afoul of federal, state or local discrimination laws, it can face reprisals, even in at at-will situation.

Workers are well served by knowing that the laundry list of taboo behaviors and conduct that can trigger a wrongful termination complaint or lawsuit is lengthy and may likely grow in the future. Federal law enumerates a number of grounds upon which a discharged worker might seek redress from an employer that proceeded unlawfully. Additionally, relevant state laws often provide similar protections and sometimes even extend available federal protections.

As noted in an online primer on wrongful termination, an employer's discriminatory behavior is far from being the only peg upon which an aggrieved worker can hang a wrongful termination claim. Among other things, claims can be based upon things like the following:

  • Breach of a stated or implied contract provision
  • Employer retaliation against a whistleblowing activity
  • Employer harassment (often sexual, though not exclusively so)
  • Failure of an employer to follow company guidelines regarding discipline and termination procedures

Wrongful termination can often revolve around complex considerations and processes. As noted in the above-cited source, "it is a good idea" for an affected employee to secure counsel from a proven employment law attorney.