Numerous federal and state laws provide employees with certain rights, such as to be free from workplace discrimination or to refuse to take lie detector tests. Many of these laws specifically limit an employer's ability to fire employees merely for exercising or enjoying the rights granted.
However, other laws grant rights without specifically limiting an employer's ability to fire employees who attempt to exercise or enjoy the rights. In this latter situation, are employers free to fire employees without risk of being sued? Not necessarily. Courts in all but a handful of states have acted to fill this loophole and to address other discharges they perceive as being morally or socially wrong by imposing a "public policy" limitation on employers' ability to fire.
Wrongful discharge claims. Fired employees have relied on the public policy limitation in winning wrongful discharge lawsuits in several situations. Perhaps most common is the claim that a public policy embodied in a federal or state law was violated when an employee was fired for attempting to exercise a statutory right, such as a right to work in a smoke-free area. A firing also may involve public policy when it is based on an employee's opposition to illegal conduct. In essence, if a firing is inconsistent with any stated federal or state policy or interest, the fired employee has a potential claim.
For example, employees who were fired for the following reasons successfully argued that their firings violated public policy:
- filing claims for workers' compensation benefits
- appearing as a witness in response to a subpoena
- serving on jury duty
- refusing a superior's sexual advances
- being served with a wage assignment order for child support payments
- refusing to commit perjury
- reporting an employer's illegal acts to appropriate authorities
- filing criminal charges against a co-employee for acts committed in the course of employment
Wrongful discharge cases that are based on public policy grounds are especially difficult for employers. For one thing, "public policy" is not uniformly defined across the states. A firing that violates California's public policy will not necessarily violate Mississippi's.
Emotional distress claims. Furthermore, a fired employee will frequently accompany a public policy claim with an assertion that the employer's conduct was so improper as to cause the employee mental and emotional anguish. The addition of the emotional distress claim creates the possibility that you may be held liable for monetary damages not only for lost wages and benefits associated with the wrongful discharge, but also for any physical or emotional toll resulting from the discharge that can be translated into money. In addition, if the employer's conduct is found to be particularly offensive, the employee may be entitled to receive punitive damages.