Most states follow the “employment at will” doctrine. In essence, this means that employers may hire, refuse to hire, promote, demote, fire or lay off employees for any reason, good bad or for no reason at all, provided that the reason is not prohibited by statute. Similarly, this also means that employees may leave the current positions at any time, for any reason. If an employment contract exists between the parties, the party terminating the employment may face a breach of contract claim, but otherwise, the termination is valid under the law.
Wrongful termination is one of the most misunderstood claims in employment practice. Legally speaking, a termination is not “wrongful” if it was based on inaccurate information or if the reason for the termination was unfair. So long as the termination, demotion, etc. was not because of the individual’s race, sex, gender, national origin, age, religion or disability, the employment action stands.
Wrongful discharge claims usually apply in limited circumstances. Virginia, for instance, permits claims for wrongful termination for violations of a clearly defined public policy. Public policies under which a claim can be brought include:
- Terminations for exercising a statutory right
- Terminations of an employee who’s a member of a statutory protected class
- Terminations for refusal to engage in illegal/criminal acts.
Many potential reasons for a wrongful termination claim overlap with other federal and state civil rights laws that provide additional protections and requirements on claimants and employers. If a statutory right or protection is involved, a wrongful termination claim will usually be interpreted under that statutory framework.
Knowledgeable counsel can help you determine whether you have a valid wrongful termination claim or whether the claim should be brought under a different statute.