To understand wrongful termination in violation of public policy, it’s helpful to first understand what public policy is. Public policy is defined as the system of laws and principles that guide our society. Public policy is set by the government, and declares objectives relating to the general well being of the citizens of the country.
When an employee is terminated in violation of public policy, we are usually presented with a case of retaliation, where the employer wrongfully terminated an employee who was acting in accordance with public policy. This usually happens when the actions of the employee are not in the best interest of the employer.
The public policy exception is based on the premise that although an at-will employee may be fired or demoted for no reason, the employer doesn’t have the right to punish the employee for a purpose that conflicts with public policy.
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Public policy exception to at-will employment
Most states recognize that limits on an employer’s right to exercise at-will employment can be set by public policy. The public policy exception to at will employment is not recognized by 8 states though.
Generally speaking, wrongful termination in violation of public policy claims are based on the following actions by employees:
- exercising a legal right (for example taking a few hours off to go vote)
- filing claims for some sort of compensation
- reporting illegal conduct carried out by the employer
- refusing to carry out illegal activities
To have a solid claim for wrongful termination, the public policy in question needs to be well established and be based on a constitutional provision or a law.
The main aim of the public policy exception is to promote lawful behavior. It achieves this in 2 ways:
- It makes sure employees don’t feel that they must oblige to unlawful requests from their employers, and also encourages them to report illegal activities.
- On the side of the employer, it encourages lawful behavior, by deterring illegal activities.
Prerequisites for wrongful termination in violation of public policy
To establish a claim for wrongful discharge, all of the following points must be given:
- A formal employment relationship must exist, and the claim can only be asserted against the legal employer, not a supervisor. Independent contractors are not considered employees.
- The employer took negative employment action against the employee, such as firing.
- The wrongful termination must be linked to the employee adhering to public policy. Also, to be retaliatory in nature, it must take place within a reasonable amount of time. This establishes causation between the activity and the wrongful termination.
- The employee suffered damages, such as financial damages, distress, etc.
Common examples of employee activities that may result in wrongful termination
The public policy violation exception from at-will employment is meant to keep employers in check. Most wrongful termination cases in violation of public policy concern employee activities that go against the interests of the employer.
Examples of such activities are:
- Termination for refusing to do something illegal
- Violation of family or medical leave laws (FMLA)
- Refusing to release employer from liability for intentional acts
- Requesting overtime pay
- Refusing to sign non-compete covenants
- Whistleblowing regarding fraud against the government
- Reporting unsafe working conditions
- Advocating appropriate medical care for a patient
- Discussing each others’ wages with colleagues
- Testifying against the company at a hearing
- Right to receive earned wages in a timely manner
- Reporting employment discrimination
- Disclosing improper practices affecting the public at large
- Right to workplace free of violence
Damages, cases and settlements in public policy violation claims
Employees can seek the following damages in wrongful discharge in violation of public policy claims:
- Compensatory damages – backpay for lost income, lost benefits, lost future earnings
- Punitive damages – if the wrongful conduct is deliberate and especially harsh, punitive damages may be imposed to punish the employer
- Litigation and attorney costs – the costs of litigation and the fees of attorneys may be covered
Example cases and settlements
Here are a some real court cases, where the employer was found to have terminated an employee wrongfully in violation of public policy:
- A woman was awarded $125,000 after proving that she was unlawfully terminated by her employer. She proved that she was fired in violation of public policy, since she was fired 2 days after informing her employer that she had answered a federal investigator’s questions about the employer’s overtime pay practices. (source)
- A man was awarded $13,300 after proving that his former employer, a Military School, discharged him in violation of public policy. The employee found bruises on one of the students, and suspected that he suffered physical abuse. After reporting the incident to 2 of his supervisors, and telling them that it should be reported to the Division of Family Services, he was warned that he would be fired if he did so. He was fired after reporting the ordeal to a 3rd supervisor. (source)
What to do if an employee has been wrongfully discharged in violation of public policy?
First of all, make sure the state the employment relationship was based in recognizes the public policy exception to at-will employment. As mentioned above, not all states support the exception.
You can check which states recognize it here.
After this, please review our guide on filing a claim for wrongful termination. There is a 2 year time limit to file the claim after the date of discharge.