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Terminating At-Will Employment for All the Wrong Reasons

What Is At-Will Employment?

Employment is just as much about relationships as it is about business. The relationship between an employer and their employees must be solid enough so that business goals can be properly executed. The relationship between employees and other employees should also be smooth enough so that conflict does not disrupt productivity.

However, no one can really tell how a particular person “fits” into a business until they’re hired. In that respect, employment relationships are like social or romantic relationships – you can’t really tell if someone is “dating material” until you’ve spent some time with them.

Like dating, employment relationships shouldn’t be forced. Imagine a world where if you decided to go on a date with someone, you were obligated to continue dating them for a minimum of six months with an option to renew your relationship for an additional period of time. Imagine if you could only end a relationship for an objectively fair and honest reason, and not for trivial, superficial and arbitrary reasons.

Ignoring for the moment that this hypothetical scenario may or may not describe some people’s idea of marriage, the notion of being locked into a romantic relationship like that is probably very disconcerting to most people.

Similarly, the at-will employment doctrine exists to prevent forced employment relationships. Most states, including Connecticut, recognize the employment-at-will doctrine as a valid approach to employment relationships. At-will employment is characterized by the lack of formal contractual employment terms, such as duration and basis for termination and resignation. At-will employees can quit at any time and employers can discharge an at-will employee for any reason.

Wrongful Termination in At-Will Employment

The point where the analogy between dating and employment starts to fall apart is where the distribution of power between the parties lies. Your personal relationships probably aren’t characterized by a disparity in power. However, the same isn’t true in employment relationships. An employer typically enjoys more power than an individual employee.

Because of the disparate levels of power in employer-employee relationships, employment and labor laws developed exceptions to the at-will employment doctrine when it comes to terminating the employment relationship.

Although at-will employment generally allows the employment relationship to end at any time and for any reason, employment laws prohibit the following:

  • Terminations that violate public policy;
  • Terminations that breach the “implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing”; and
  • Terminations that violate an “implied contract.”

These exceptions serve as the basis for wrongful termination actions. Terminations that violate public policy include federal and state laws that prohibit discrimination and retaliation.

Discrimination and Retaliation Under Federal Law

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) serves as one of the bases for federal employment discrimination prohibitions. Under Title VII, employers are not allowed “to refuse to hire, to discharge, or to otherwise discriminate against any person…because of the person’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” Title VII also prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace.

Furthermore, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) and its subsequent amendments prohibit discrimination based on age, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) prohibits discrimination on the basis of physical or mental disabilities.

Title VII also prohibits retaliation by an employer against individuals for engaging in a “protected activity.” Under federal law, a “protected activity” means either:

  • Opposition to an unlawful employment practice under federal employment discrimination law; or
  • Participating in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under one of the federal equal employment opportunity laws.

As a result, a retaliatory termination against an employee for lodging a complaint about sexual harassment is grounds for wrongful termination.

Discrimination and Retaliation Under Connecticut Law

The Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act (CFEPA) is the basis for most of the state’s discrimination prohibitions. CFEPA recognizes the same protected classes federal employment laws delineate but also extends protection to additional classes of people.

Under the CFEPA, employers are prohibited from refusing to hire someone – or firing a current employee – based on:

  • Race;
  • Color;
  • Religious creed;
  • National origin;
  • Sex and sexual harassment;
  • Age;
  • Sexual orientation;
  • Ancestry;
  • Marital status;
  • Past or present mental disorder;
  • Mental retardation;
  • Learning disability; or
  • Physical disability.

Similar to the Federal law, Connecticut’s State laws also prohibit retaliation by an employer against individuals for engaging in a “protected activity.”

Need a Fairfield County Employment Law Attorney?

Being wrongfully deprived of employment is a serious matter for which the law provides special dispensation. If you believe your job has been terminated in violation of your rights, you should consult an experienced Fairfield County employment law attorney with experience handling wrongful termination cases. At The McMinn Employment Law Firm, we have over 14 years of litigation experience and our law firm is solely dedicated to representing employees against scrupulous companies, state agencies, or towns with questionable employment and labor practices. We have the sophisticated know-how to piece the records and documents of your case together in a way that underscores the sympathetic human element of your story.

Call us at (203) 930-1600 to schedule a free initial consultation to evaluate your legal rights today.