What is wrongful termination in violation of public policy?

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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Written by Jeffrey Johnson
Insurance Lawyer Jeffrey Johnson

UPDATED: Jun 29, 2022

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The basic concept of wrongful termination in violation of public policy is that employers cannot terminate an otherwise at-will employee if the termination would violate the “public policy”. What does that mean? To be the basis of a wrongful termination action, the policy in question must be well established and substantial and it must be based on either a statute or constitutional provision. There are obvious violations of “public policy,” such as terminating an employee for refusing to fire another employee because that employee is black and over 40 years of age.  But there is plenty of “gray area” as well.  A typical scenario is when an employee engages in a “protected activity” and the employer fires him or her “because of” or in “retaliation” for engaging in that protected activity”.

The reason that these types of terminations violate public policy is because it is good public policy to encourage employees to refuse to engage in activities that violate the law, or to allow their employers to engage in such activities. Protecting employees in the event they witness or are pressured into engaging in illegal actitivies, or in the event they act to protect their own rights, promotes respect for the law by employers and encourages lawful behavior. It also allows employees to protect themselves and fight for their own rights without fear of retaliation from employers.

Protected activities: Wrongful termination claims usually are based on one of the following categories of “protected activities”:

(1) Terminations expressly prohibited by statute;

(2) Terminations where the employee has exercised a constitutional or statutory right or privilege;

(3) Terminations for refusing to engage in conduct that is unlawful; and

(4) Terminations for reporting alleged unlawful conduct by the employer. This is sometimes called “whistleblowing.” For more information, read our section on the subject.



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