Know Your Rights

Wrongful Termination

by Doug Bonney

Almost every day I receive a phone call from a person who has been fired and who wants to sue the employer who did it. Often these callers talk about “wrongful termination” and almost always these people think they have some kind of generalized legal protection against being fired unjustly. Unfortunately, these people are wrong. In Kansas and Missouri, and in almost every other state in the Union, the law is employment at will. That means that an employer can fire any employee at any time for any reason or no reason at all.

It makes no difference whether the employee was a great worker or whether the employer fired the employee for malicious reasons. Ordinarily, the fired employee cannot make any claim against the employer.

There are a few exceptions to the general rule of employment at will. First, the employer can agree in a contract not to fire employees except for good reasons. Ordinarily, this kind of a promise is included in a collective bargaining agreement negotiated by a union on behalf of the employer’s employees. Such a promise is called a “just cause provision and requires that the employer have just cause for firing an employee. This is a very valuable benefit that employees can achieve by selecting a union to represent them.

The employer can also agree in an individual contract of employment not to fire an employee except for a good reason. But very few employees have such employment contract;, and often employees who have a contract are still employees at will because employers usually include language in the contract that allows them to fire the employee at will.

In Kansas, the courts have adopted the “implied contract exception” to the at will employment rule. That means that a promise to lire only for good reason is implied into the contract of employment based on statements in the employer’s policies or employee handbooks. In Missouri, however, the courts have consistently rejected the implied contract exception. Thus, in Missouri, a statement in an employee handbook that the employee will only be fired for a good reason is not worth the paper it’s written on.

Most other exceptions to the at will rule are made by statute, which is a law passed by a federal, state, or local legislature. For example, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it illegal to fire an employee because of race, color, creed, sex, religion, or national origin. Other laws make it illegal to fire employees because of disability or age.

Many laws also protect employees against retaliatory discharge. For instance, it is unlawful to fire an employee for complaining about discrimination or unsafe working conditions or the employer’s failure to comply with federal or state laws, such as the Fair Labor Standards Act which governs minimum wages and overtime. Other laws protect “whistleblowers,” and the courts in both Kansas and Missouri have recognized the “public policy exception” to the at will rule. Under the public policy exception it is illegal to lire an employee who acts in compliance with well established public policy. The classic public policy case involves employees who file worker’s compensation claims.

Despite these exceptions, the general rule is employment at will. Unfortunately, most working people in America do not realize they are employed at will. They mistakenly believe that they enjoy some generalized legal protection against irrational and arbitrary employers. But they are wrong. We who know better need to educate workers that the only way they can get such general protection and power in the workplace is through a union. Spread the word!