The Correct meaning of “At-Will Employment” and “Wrongful Discharge”
In Colorado, the “at will” employment doctrine means that – as a general rule – an employer may terminate a worker’s employment for any reason or no reason at all without facing any liability to the employee. While this may seem harsh, the at will employment doctrine is a coin with two sides. Just as an employer may terminate an employee on a whim, an employee may also quit at any time for any reason or no reason at all and they may do so on a moment’s notice. Although an employee’s decision to provide “two weeks’ notice” may be customary, absent more, an employee need not provide any notice whatsoever prior to quitting. Thus, an employee is free to quit on a whim, just as an employer may fire the employee without any notice or meaningful justification, all without any legal liability arising. An employer will face no legal liability to the employee simply because the employee feels “wronged” in connection with the termination. Instead, an employer’s liability to the employee will only arise if the termination violates any of the pertinent statutes.
This general rule – that an employee may be fired at any time for any reason or no reason – has very important exceptions. Various Colorado state and federal laws provide exceptions to the at-will employment doctrine, making it unlawful to discharge an employee under certain circumstances or for certain reasons. For example, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, an employer may not terminate an employee due to the employee’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Some of the more recognizable laws on the list include the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the American’s with Disabilities Act, which prohibit firings based upon an employee’s age or disability. Various other protections for employees come from statutes and regulations, as well as judicially-created legal doctrines or even municipal ordinances. The violation of one of these laws in connection with an employee being fired or laid off is when a “wrongful termination” occurs. Absent more, even a firing which could be considered morally, ethically or economically “wrong” does not necessarily constitute “wrongful discharge” in the legal sense. Ultimately, an employee’s termination will not give rise to a “wrongful discharge” claim unless the justification also violates one the laws in question. Employers should exercise caution, however, as it can be difficult to determine whether an employee may have a viable wrongful discharge claim. Not only are employees entitled to rely upon circumstantial evidence in many cases, but also the legal framework that the courts implement sometimes favors the employee. These and other factors can cloud the determination of whether a wrongful discharge has occurred.
Finally, employers and employees should be mindful that wrongful discharge is just one form of unlawful discrimination in the workplace. Legal liability may also arise when an employer takes certain other adverse employment actions, such as demotion, suspension, or other actions that cause a materially adverse change in the terms and conditions of a worker’s employment.
For questions regarding this article, please contact employment law attorney Damien Zumbrennen.