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50.2 Employment at Will

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand what is meant by employment at will under common law.
  2. Explain the kinds of common-law (judicially created) exceptions to the employment-at-will doctrine, and provide examples.

At common law, an employee without a contract guaranteeing a job for a specific period was an employee at will and could be fired at any time and for any reason, or even for no reason at all. The various federal statutes we have just examined have made inroads on the at-will doctrine. Another federal statute, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, prohibits employers from discharging employees who exercise their rights under that law.

The courts and legislatures in more than forty states have made revolutionary changes in the at-will doctrine. They have done so under three theories: tort, contract, and duty of good faith and fair dealing. We will first consider the tort of wrongful discharge.

Courts have created a major exception to the employment-at-will rule by allowing the tort of wrongful discharge. Wrongful discharge means firing a worker for a bad reason. What is a bad reason? A bad reason can be (1) discharging an employee for refusing to violate a law, (2) discharging an employee for exercising a legal right, (3) discharging an employee for performing a legal duty, and (4) discharging an employee in a way that violates public policy.

Discharging an Employee for Refusing to Violate a Law

Some employers will not want employees to testify truthfully at trial. In one case, a nurse refused a doctor’s order to administer a certain anesthetic when she believed it was wrong for that particular patient; the doctor, angry at the nurse for refusing to obey him, then administered the anesthetic himself. The patient soon stopped breathing. The doctor and others could not resuscitate him soon enough, and he suffered permanent brain damage. When the patient’s family sued the hospital, the hospital told the nurse she would be in trouble if she testified. She did testify according to her oath in the court of law (i.e., truthfully), and after several months of harassment, was finally fired on a pretext. The hospital was held liable for the tort of wrongful discharge. As a general rule, you should not fire an employee for refusing to break the law.

Discharging an Employee for Exercising a Legal Right

Suppose Bob Berkowitz files a claim for workers’ compensation for an accident at Pacific Gas & Electric, where he works and where the accident that injured him took place. He is fired for doing so, because the employer does not want to have its workers’ comp premiums increased. In this case, the right exercised by Berkowitz is supported by public policy: he has a legal right to file the claim, and if he can establish that his discharge was caused by his filing the claim, he will prove the tort of wrongful discharge.

Discharging an Employee for Performing a Legal Duty

Courts have long held that an employee may not be fired for serving on a jury. This is so even though courts do recognize that many employers have difficulty replacing employees called for jury duty. Jury duty is an important civic obligation, and employers are not permitted to undermine it.

Discharging an Employee in a Way That Violates Public Policy

This is probably the most controversial basis for a tort of wrongful discharge. There is an inherent vagueness in the phrase “basic social rights, duties, or responsibilities.” This is similar to the exception in contract law: the courts will not enforce contract provisions that violate public policy. (For the most part, public policy is found in statutes and in cases.) But what constitutes public policy is an important decision for state courts. In Wagenseller v. Scottsdale Memorial Hospital,Wagenseller v. Scottsdale Memorial Hospital, 147 Ariz. 370; 710 P.2d 1025 (1085). for example, a nurse who refused to “play along” with her coworkers on a rafting trip was discharged. The group of coworkers had socialized at night, drinking alcohol; when the partying was near its peak, the plaintiff refused to be part of a group that bared their buttocks to the tune of “Moon River” (a composition by Henry Mancini that was popular in the 1970s). The court, at great length, considered that “mooning” was a misdemeanor under Arizona law and that therefore her employer could not discharge her for refusing to violate a state law.

Other courts have gone so far as to include professional oaths and codes as part of public policy. In Rocky Mountain Hospital and Medical Services v. Diane Mariani, the Colorado Supreme Court reviewed a trial court decision to refuse relief to a certified public accountant who was discharged when she refused to violate her professional code.Rocky Mountain Hospital and Medical Services v. Diane Mariani, 916 P.2d 519 (Colo. 1996). (Her employer had repeatedly required her to come up with numbers and results that did not reflect the true situation, using processes that were not in accord with her training and the code.) The court of appeals had reversed the trial court, and the Supreme Court had to decide if the professional code of Colorado accountants could be considered to be part of public policy. Given that accountants were licensed by the state on behalf of the public, and that the Board of Accountancy had published a code for accounting professionals and required an oath before licensing, the court noted the following:

The Colorado State Board of Accountancy is established pursuant to section 12-2-103, 5A C.R.S. (1991). The Board has responsibility for making appropriate rules of professional conduct, in order to establish and maintain a high standard of integrity in the profession of public accounting. § 12-2-104, 5A C.R.S. (1991). These rules of professional conduct govern every person practicing as a certified public accountant. Id. Failure to abide by these rules may result in professional discipline. § 12-2-123, 5A C.R.S. (1991). The rules of professional conduct for accountants have an important public purpose. They ensure the accurate reporting of financial information to the public. They allow the public and the business community to rely with confidence on financial reporting. Rule 7.1, 3 C.C.R. 705-1 (1991). In addition, they ensure that financial information will be reported consistently across many businesses. The legislature has endorsed these goals in section 12-2-101, 5A C.R.S.

The court went on to note that the stated purpose of the licensing and registration of certified public accountants was to “provide for the maintenance of high standards of professional conduct by those so licensed and registered as certified public accountants.” Further, the specific purpose of Rule 7.1 provided a clear mandate to support an action for wrongful discharge. Rule 7.1 is entitled “Integrity and Objectivity” and states, “A certificate holder shall not in the performance of professional services knowingly misrepresent facts, nor subordinate his judgment to others.” The fact that Mariani’s employer asked her to knowingly misrepresent facts was a sufficient basis in public policy to make her discharge wrongful.

Contract Modification of Employment at Will

Contract law can modify employment at will. Oral promises made in the hiring process may be enforceable even though the promises are not approved by top management. Employee handbooks may create implied contracts that specify personnel processes and statements that the employees can be fired only for a “just cause” or only after various warnings, notice, hearing, or other procedures.

Good Faith and Fair Dealing Standard

A few states, among them Massachusetts and California, have modified the at-will doctrine in a far-reaching way by holding that every employer has entered into an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing with its employees. That means, the courts in these states say, that it is “bad faith” and therefore unlawful to discharge employees to avoid paying commissions or pensions due them. Under this implied covenant of fair dealing, any discharge without good cause—such as incompetence, corruption, or habitual tardiness—is actionable. This is not the majority view, as the case in Section 50.4.4 "Disability Discrimination" makes clear.

Key Takeaway

Although employment at will is still the law, numerous exceptions have been established by judicial decision. Employers can be liable for the tort of wrongful discharge if they discharge an employee for refusing to violate a law, for exercising a legal right or performing a legal duty, or in a way that violates basic public policy.

Exercises

  1. Richard Mudd, an employee of Compuserve, is called for jury duty in Wayne County, Michigan. His immediate supervisor, Harvey Lorie, lets him know that he “must” avoid jury duty at all costs. Mudd tells the judge of his circumstances and his need to be at work, but the judge refuses to let Mudd avoid jury duty. Mudd spends the next two weeks at trial. He sends regular e-mails and texts to Lorie during this time, but on the fourth day gets a text message from Lorie that says, “Don’t bother to come back.” When he does return, Lorie tells him he is fired. Does Mudd have a cause of action for the tort of wrongful discharge?
  2. Olga Monge was a schoolteacher in her native Costa Rica. She moved to New Hampshire and attended college in the evenings to earn US teaching credentials. At night, she worked at the Beebe Rubber Company after caring for her husband and three children during the day. When she applied for a better job at the plant, the foreman offered to promote her if she would be “nice” and go out on a date with him. She refused, and he assigned her to a lower-wage job, took away her overtime, made her clean the washrooms, and generally ridiculed her. She finally collapsed at work, and he fired her. Does Monge have any cause of action?