At-will Employment: Does My Employer Need a Reason for Firing Me?
What happens if my employer fired me for no reason?
Employees often have questions regarding their legal rights. One of the most commonly asked questions is: “whether you can sue your employer for firing you for no reason?”
New Jersey, like most states, has adopted at-will employment laws, which essentially means that in most cases, an employer can terminate an employee without reason. However, while an employer usually does not have to have a reason for firing an employee, there are exceptions, protected by law. These include: public policy exceptions; the implied covenant of good faith; an implied contract; and/or discrimination.
An employer may not terminate an employee for an action protected by a statute or a constitutional right. These scenarios may include firing an employee for refusing to perform an illegal act; firing an employee for reporting illegal conduct; firing an employee for exercising their statutory rights; or firing an employee for exercising a public policy right.
An action filed due to a violation of public policy is known in New Jersey as a “Pierce” claim or a claim made under the “Pierce doctrine.” The doctrine derives from the New Jersey Supreme Court’s decision in Pierce v. Ortho Pharmaceutical Corp., 84 N.J. 58 (1980). There, the Supreme Court held that employees may bring wrongful termination lawsuits against employers who wrongfully discharge them, where the discharge is “contrary to a clear mandate of public policy.” Id. at 72.
So what is a “clear mandate of public policy?” Well, absent legislation mandates of public policy are determined by the court on a case-by-case basis, but courts are instructed to consider relevant legislation; administrative rules, regulations or decisions; and judicial decisions. In certain circumstances, a professional code of ethics may contain an expression of public policy. However, not all of these sources will express a “clear mandate.” For instance, a code of ethics that was developed only to serve the interests of a profession or an administrative regulation concerned with technical matters likely would not be sufficient.
Implied Covenant of Good Faith
Every contract in New Jersey has an implied covenant of good faith. This means that “neither party shall do anything which will have the effect of destroying or injuring the right of the other party to receive the fruits of the contract.” Sons of Thunder Inc. v. Borden, Inc., 148 N.J. 396, 420 (1997).
Consequently, employers are prohibited from firing employees to avoid paying them their compensation they earned. Examples of breaches of the implied covenant of good faith would be: firing an employee right before they retired to avoid paying retirement benefits; firing an employee before payment of a large commission; or firing an employee that uses their benefits frequently. Essentially, your employer has a duty to act in good faith.
While evident to most that if you are terminated in violation of a written contract setting forth a set period for your employment and/or delineating specific reasons by which you could be fired, you may have a claim for wrongful termination based on breach of contract, what is less evident is that certain implied promises made by your employer are also enforceable.
Probably the best-known exception to the at-will doctrine was confirmed by the New Jersey Supreme Court in Woolley v. Hoffmann-LaRoche, 99 N.J. 288 (1985). There the Court dealt with the issue of an implied contract based upon an employee manual/handbook. Ultimately, the Court held that absent a clear and prominent disclaimer, an implied promise contained in an employee handbook that an employee could only be fired “for cause” was enforceable against the employer even if the employment relationship was otherwise at will.
Another reason that negates the at-will status of an employee is discrimination. New Jersey employers may not subject employees or applicants to discriminatory treatment based solely or primarily on several protected characteristics.
Do employers have to give written warnings before firing?
Contrary to popular belief, you are not entitled to “three strikes” or any warning before your employer terminates you. New Jersey is an employment-at-will state, meaning that your employer may fire you without reason and without cause. This also means that an employee is free to quit their job at any time, with or without reason or notice.
Nevertheless, some employees are protected by collective bargaining agreements, which are entered into between unions and employers. These agreements require more stringent processes and extend additional protections related to terminations. Other employees may have also entered into private contracts with their employers that spell out the terms of employment. However, barring these exceptional circumstances, your employer may terminate you without prior warnings.
What are wrongful termination examples?
Although various examples have been set forth more fully above, typical examples of wrongful termination include, but are not limited to:
- Firing an employee for refusing to perform an illegal act or reporting an illegal act;
- Firing an employee to avoid paying the employee benefits to which they are entitled (e.g., firing an employee right before their is about to retire to avoid paying costly retirement benefits, or firing an employee to avoid paying a large commission.);
- Firing an employee without reason, despite an employee handbook providing that an employee may only be fired “for cause.”;
- Terminating an employee due to their age;
- Terminating an employee due to their sex;
- Terminating an employee due to their disability;
- Terminating an employee due to their race;
- Terminating an employee due to their religion;
- Terminating an employee due to their marital, civil union, or domestic partnership status;
- Terminating an employee due to pregnancy or breastfeeding;
- Terminating an employee due to their sex, gender identity, or expression; or
- Terminating an employee due to their affectional or sexual orientation.
This list, however, is far from exhaustive, and it is generally prudent that you speak with an experienced employment law attorney who can advise you of your specific rights.
How do I talk to Human Resources (HR) about unfair treatment?
Going to your company’s Human Resources Department can be awkward and even at times scary. However, knowing how to navigate this process will hopefully aid in smooth reporting.
First, you should assess the severity of the situation and whether it is something you can handle on your own. If not, it is essential to document the unfair treatment immediately. This may be done in several ways, such as creating a word document or excel spreadsheet, wherein you document the date of the unfair treatment, what happened, who was present, and all other important details. Further, save copies of any tangible evidence documenting the unfair treatment (e.g., text messages, emails, or other recorded communications).
Next, submit your complaint to your company’s Human Resources Department. If your company does not have a dedicated Human Resources Department, you can report the unfair treatment to anyone with authority over you, such as your supervisor or manager. Ensure that your report is focused. You do not need to list every problem you have ever encountered, only what you believe is significant.
Additionally, try to avoid legal buzzwords. Often people report to HR that they are subject to a “hostile work environment” but then do little more. Instead, focus on the actual conduct that created the hostility. For instance, rather than saying, “my supervisor has subjected me to a hostile work environment,” say, “my supervisor has made racially insensitive comments.”
Finally, avoid threats. Employers hate to hear that you will sue them or that you are hiring an attorney. Instead, initially focus on a constructive solution and provide your employer with a chance to remedy the situation. Otherwise, you may come across as attempting to “cook up” a lawsuit, which ultimately could harm your claim if a lawsuit does become necessary. Your report, in all likelihood, will be documented and saved by your employer, and just as your employer doesn’t like receiving threats, juries don’t like plaintiffs whom they think are trying to take advantage of the system.
Is it hard to prove wrongful termination?
Proving that you were wrongfully terminated is often a complex process, as employers often cite legal and legitimate reasons for terminating an employee. This could include poor performance or the need for the company to downsize. In those instances, an employee will have to prove that the purported legitimate reason was just a pretext for an unlawful termination. To prove this, it is often the case that the terminated employee will need to acquire circumstantial evidence, including how other employees in similar situations were treated. Consequently, it is generally prudent that you retain an experienced employment law attorney who will not only know what kind of evidence to collect but how to obtain it to build you a strong case.
If you believe you have been wrongfully terminated and you wish to discuss your legal options, Farrell & Thurman, P.C., offers a variety of convenient ways to schedule a free, no-pressure consultation. You may do so directly on our website (Schedule A Consult), via phone (609-924-1115), or by email (Contact Us).