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What Is At-Will Employment?

Every state in the U.S. observes the “at will” employment doctrine, meaning that a worker may be terminated by their employer for any reason, at any time, with rare exceptions. However, it is important to understand that there are exceptions, so that you are aware that you may fit into them. If you have been terminated in reaction to something you have done, or as a result of who you are, you may be eligible to receive compensation, even in an at-will employment state.

Public Policy

The major exception to the at-will doctrine is what is called public policy. In this context, public policy means that if an employee is terminated for a reason that would mean an injury to the public good, it is essentially illegal. If an employer terminates an employee for a reason that is a violation of criminal law, for example, this establishes a “clear action in tort for wrongful termination,” because no reasonable employer can demand their employees break the law for them, regardless of whether they are ‘at will’ or not.

There are other types of firings that may conceivably fall under public policy exemptions and thus trigger potential charges from the South Carolina Human Affairs Commission (SCHAC) or Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The most common situation is when an employee complies with a subpoena, grand jury investigation, or other lawful legal requirement, and then experiences an adverse employment action. The public policy issue here is fairly self-evident. No employee should face negative consequences for complying with state or federal law.

Implied Contract

The other major exception to the at-will employment doctrine is that of implied contract. While the existence of an actual employment contract means that employment is not at will, a contract can be held to have been formed even orally if certain criteria are met. This is namely if terms of any kind are stipulated regarding termination or other adverse employment actions. If you are terminated randomly after an express promise that only certain action will result in discharge, you may be able to bring suit for wrongful termination.

Be advised that most courts will consider vague language (for instance, making undefined promises of having a ‘future with a company’) to be puffery or aspirational, rather than creating any kind of relationship. In many cases, employers will also use specific, strict disclaimers to ensure that no real contractual relationship is accidentally created. The proverbial ball is in the employer’s court in most cases involving an implied contract, but it still may be worth pursuing this line of inquiry if you have been terminated and you feel it was unjust.

Call An Experienced Attorney

Exceptions to at-will employment are few and far between, but if you think you fit into one, you can make sure by consulting an experienced attorney. Attorney A. Christopher Potts has handled cases of this type for years, and is happy to assist you with yours. Contact the Charleston firm of Hitchcock & Potts today to set up an appointment.

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