Can an Employer Fire You for No Reason?

Can an employer fire you for no reason is a question that weighs on many employee's minds, and the answer to which depends on the situation.

In most instances, it is within an employer's right to fire a worker suddenly and with no need to justify their actions. There are extreme examples of an employee being fired with absolutely no notice and it is still not actionable. Employees typically have little recourse when they are terminated unless there is evidence of discrimination or otherwise unlawful employment practice.

It is unfortunate; however, employees being fired without any cause happens often and can happen to almost anyone. Most people can be terminated without cause with no reason given though it does ultimately depend on your employment status.

There are of course exceptions. If you have a signed contract with your employer or a bargaining agreement arranged by yourself or an entity such as a union you may have legal recourse for breach of contract, but most employees are considered at will.

There are benefits to separation under the doctrine of at-will employment. Many companies do not want to navigate the legal complexities or incur the expense of fighting your unemployment benefits. Companies will often label your termination a layoff which means you are entitled to unemployment benefits which your employer is required to pay.

Employers can make a case in front of a judge that you were fired for cause and therefore eliminate the requirement to pay unemployment benefits to an employee, but it is often not worth the time and effort. Unemployment benefits vary from state to state, but it is a portion of your salary or a portion of your combined hourly wage for a certain period of time. If your employer does not contest your request for unemployment, you will often be granted it automatically.

Employment at Will

At-will employment has really become the standard within the United States, and most states have laws making most workers at-will employees.

Under an at-will employment doctrine, an employer can fire an employee with no notice given and no justification required. This is not typically the case, however, when a company's employees have unionized and have a collective bargaining contract. Other contracts with your employer may apply as well.

Unless an employee can prove that it is not the case, most states will presume that you are an at-will employee and those applicable laws will be adhered to. If an employee can prove that they were not an at-will employee, they can protest their termination at the state and federal level. Additionally, if a violation of federal or state law has occurred because of the termination, an employee may have some recourse. Several exceptions exist that pre-empt rules governing at-will employment even if the state assumes that a worker's status is at-will.

When you are hired by an employer many times, you are required to sign a document that states you understand the nature of your employment and acknowledge that you are an at-will employee. As a result, courts will usually deny claims brought by employees for unlawful termination unless there are extenuating circumstances. On the flip side, an at-will employee also has the right and the ability to quit their job with no reason and without any warning. While two weeks' notice is considered the polite thing to do an employee is under no obligation to give an employer notice.

Providing two weeks' notice, while not required, can help you build goodwill and maintain a good relationship with people that you may work with in the future. It can also help ensure a smooth transition to a new position with your new employer. Some companies may terminate you on the spot when you give notice. When this happens, they are under no obligation to offer you severance pay but will often pay you for the two weeks you offered to complete your work.

Cause employment

While at-will employment means that you can be terminated at any time for any reason, cause employment is the exact opposite. With cause employment, an employer is unable to fire you without reason or cause. There must be a legitimate reason to terminate an employee under cause employment.

There are companies that will have a policy that requires justification for a worker to be terminated. For cause employment by a company is usually explained in an employees' handbook. Employment agreements and contracts can also sometimes include for-cause employment status, but it is by no means a requirement. Contracts signed between an employer and an employee may also have specific, details circumstances for when an employee may be terminated. The terms will be explained in your contract and are actionable should the company not follow their agreement or contract.

Similar to an employee contract is the collective bargaining agreement which can cover an employee and is usually negotiated by a union or worker association.

While you still can be fired when under contract or under a collective bargaining agreement, the contract will usually spell out how and when an employee can be terminated. If you live in the state of Montana at-will employment is not applicable to you. After a probationary employment, the state of Montana prohibits at-will firing of an employee.

Wrongful termination of employees

Being terminated because of discrimination is one exception to be fired under at-will employment. You cannot be fired, no matter what your employment designation, because of:

  • Gender
  • Race
  • Nation of origin
  • Age
  • Religion
  • Disability
  • Military status

If you feel that you have been fired for this reason and have been discriminated against by your employer or a person in position of power than that termination violates several state and local laws.

Discrimination isn't the only exception to at-will employment rules, and wrongful firings can happen for other reasons as well. No employer can ask you to engage in illegal activity, and it is against the law for them to fire you for refusing to do so. There is also certain protected activity that you may not be terminated for. Taking medical leave under the Family Medical Leave act is another example of a reason that an employer cannot fire you.

In fact, under the Family Medical Leave Act, an employer is required to allow you to come back after your leave is done. You also cannot be terminated after submitting a Worker's Compensation Claim if you have been hurt on the job. You can't be fired for filing a whistleblower claim as this would be considered retribution. Your company also cannot retaliate against you for opposing or complaining about wage violations, for reporting the company for violating safety standards or for other reasons that would violate public policy.

Being fired without any reason or notice and without any work history of disciplinary action being taken or documented performance issues it may raise the question in your mind as to whether you have been lawfully terminated. While an employer in an at-will state is under no obligation to inform you of the reason of your termination, it is not unreasonable to think it may be a wrongful termination.

An employment attorney will be able to tell you if there is any recourse you may be able to take and if they think that your termination was, in fact, illegal. An attorney feels that your rights have been violated due to unlawful conduct or breach of contract they will explain what your options are and where you can turn to in order to remedy the situation. If you were terminated for an unlawful reason, you may be entitled to back pay from your employer starting on the date of your termination.

Wrongful termination - employees under contract

Employees under contract may not be fired by their employer without just cause. Those reasons will be limited under the contract, but it is illegal to violate a signed contract.

Knowing whether you are a contract employee, clause employee, or at-will employee is always important, especially if you have been terminated by your employer. Review any contracts that you have signed when you were hired or throughout your time with your company.

Employees that have signed a contract saying that he or she may not be fired without cause have protections against some types of termination. An employee in this instance can bring action against the company for violating the contract.

Verbal assurances from an employer can also act as a contract though they are harder to prove in court. If your employer has said to you that you would not be fired without cause, those verbal assurances can imply a contract has been formed. Anything that your employer says or does can be considered an implied contract.

Employers often take care not to make promises or imply that you are more than an at-will employee, but you should document instances where you feel that they have entered into a verbal agreement with you. An employee handbook, even one that is not signed, can also be a source of an implied contract. While it may be hard to prove a lawyer may be able to tell you if you have a case.

While you can use your employer's words as evidence that you are not an at-will employee he may also use contradictory statements that were made to you as evidence that you are in fact at-will.

States can also protect employees for a variety of other reasons. For instance, some states do not allow a company for reasons such as serving as a firefighter or even an election officer. Courts in some states have even gone as far as saying that an employer may not terminated you because you exercised a legal right of which you were entitled. Filing a compensation claim under the Occupational Safety and Health Act or reporting a safety violation to OSHA is also not an offense under which an employee may be fired.

Some courts have also held that employers cannot fire you because you took advantage of a legal remedy or exercised a legal right—such as filing a workers' compensation claim or reporting a violation of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA). Additionally, courts may make exceptions if a company has violated any provisions within their state constitution. Similarly, they may find for you if the code of ethics or administrative code have been violated.

While states write the laws, it is the courts that interpret them. They will have the final say as to whether or not a company has violated your rights by firing you for no reason and without cause. Some states protect whistleblowers who complain that their employer broke any law, regulation, or ordinance at all. Additionally, courts may make exceptions if a company has violated any provisions within their state constitution. 

Wrongful termination - for reasons that violates public policy

If you are an at-will employee but the reason you were fired is in violation of the public interest of the state, then a court could deem the termination illegal. For instance, if you revealed that a company was not paying employees properly or refusing to allow employees to use the vacation pay that they have accrued it may be deemed in the public interest. If you have revealed that the company has violated another employee's rights, even if yours were not, it could be deemed in the public interest as well. There are many reasons that this may be the case and a judge will make the final determination on the cause of your firing.

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