3 Common Exceptions to the Employment at Will Doctrine

In most states, your employer can terminate you without (much) notice and without cause, in most cases, according to the employment at will doctrine. This common law doctrine allows employers and employees to sever their professional relationships without any notice and justification. However, in limited circumstances, employers cannot terminate their employees without notice or cause. In some cases, they may need to provide both. Here are the most common exceptions to the employment at will doctrine.

1. Protected Classes: According to the federal equal employment opportunity laws enforced by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a covered employer cannot terminate an employee based on discriminatory reasons. Discriminatory firings include terminations based on gender, age (over 40), race, religion, disability, pregnancy or genetic information.

2. Employment Contracts: If your employer signed an employment contract requiring a for-cause termination, you may be able to sue your employer for breach of contract. Generally, a court may not want to force parties to continue working together if doing so would be detrimental to either party. In this case, a court may award monetary damages for breach of contract.

3. Retaliatory Termination: An employer cannot terminate an employee for exercising his legal rights. Thus, if you believed your employer engaged in employment discrimination, and you decided to report his bad conduct by filing a discrimination complaint with the EEOC, your employer cannot fire you as retaliation for exercising your legal rights to report him. Similarly, if you reported your employer for violating job safety regulations with the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), your employer cannot legally terminate you for doing so.

The EEOC has strict time deadlines or statutes of limitations in which you can file an employment discrimination claim. You should understand your rights by speaking with an employment law attorney. Your attorney may ask you to file a complaint with the EEOC or file a complaint on your behalf.

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