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9.0Annette Newman
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WHAT IS "AT WILL" EMPLOYMENT?

Often employees contact my firm wishing to sue their employer for wrongful termination. Many are surprised to learn that they have very little protection from termination, even if they are a tenured employee who has been with their employer for a long time. The State of Florida is an “at will” state, meaning both employers and employees of most private organizations can terminate the employment relationship for any reason or no reason at all, and with or without giving advance notice. In other words, employers do not have to give their employees a reason for discharging them. There are, however, a few exceptions to “at will” employment. If that is not the case, unfortunately, the employee has no legal remedy

Of course, there are exceptions to “at will” employment, including if you were wrongfully terminated or treated in a disparate manner, based on discriminatory reasons, because of your protected class, including race, color, national origin, sex, age, disability, religion, pregnancy, familial status, sexual orientation, or other reasons that are protected by law. If your employer subjected you to harassment, a hostile work environment, or retaliated against you because of discriminatory reasons, there are federal, state statutes as well as local ordinances which protect you.

Not all employees are “at will” employees. For example, certain employees who work for public agencies (federal/state and county employees for example) are entitled to “due process” before they can be terminated from their job. Due process means that the government agency they work for is required to give their employees advance notice before they can be fired. They also have to give their employees an opportunity to be heard at a hearing. At the hearing, the agency must show that it has a good reason for firing the employee, and the employee must be given an opportunity to argue why he or she should not be fired. Some courts refer to this exception to “at will” employment as “just cause.” For example, tenured teachers who work for public schools cannot be terminated without just cause, and must first be given an opportunity to appear at a hearing to argue why they should not be fired.

Another exception to “at will” employment is employees who sign a contract with a definite time period when the employment relationship ends. Independent contractors are an example of this. If the independent contractor or the employer violates material terms and conditions of the employment contract agreement, the employer and/or employee can terminate the employment contract for breach of contract and sue the employer/employee for the breach.

Employees who are members of a union also have more protection from arbitrary termination than “at will” employees. The collective bargaining agreement (CBA), is a contract the union representatives and employer negotiates, which usually contains the terms and conditions upon which an employee can be fired among other things. When the union and employer agree to the terms and conditions in a CBA, both the employer and the union are required to abide by that agreement. Some examples of the terms in a CBA are terms regarding promotions, demotions, suspensions, pay, disciplinary actions and termination from employment.

Another exception to “at will” employment is referred to as the “public policy exception.” Examples of public policy violations includes: an employer who violates public policies of the State, such as terminating an employee for filing a workers’ compensation claim; an employee refuses to violate the law at his/her employer’s request, and the employer terminates him/her; an employer retaliates against an employee for “blowing the whistle” on his/her employer for violating safety laws (“Whistle Blower” protection); an employer who fires an employee for not reporting to work, because he/she had to serve on jury duty; and an employer who terminates an employee who is unable to work, because he/she is called to active duty or reserve duty for the military.

If you have been terminated from your job, you should speak to a knowledgeable employment/labor law attorney who can evaluate your case, to determine if your rights have been violated. If one of the exceptions to at will employment applies to you, or you were terminated for discriminatory reasons based on your protected class, give us a call at 888-333-5580 and schedule a consultation, so we can evaluate your claim, to determine if your employer violated your rights.