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Wrongful Termination and At-Will Employees


Most workers are “at will” employees. This means that the employer can fire the employee at any time and for any reason, or for no reason at all. But there are exceptions to this rule. Examples include:

Public Policy
An employer may not require an employee to break the law as a condition of continued employment. If an employer fires an employee for refusing to violate a statute, the employee may bring an action for wrongful termination in violation of public policy. And in the District of Columbia, an employee may bring an action for lost wages, reinstatement, damages, and attorneys’ fees if she is fired for serving on a jury – the termination may also expose the employer to criminal prosecution. [1]

employment law

In the District of Columbia, employees who disclose an employer’s abuse of public funds, violation of the law, or endangerment of public
health or safety are protected from retaliation and termination. [2]

Employment Contracts
If you have contracted employees, it’s in your company’s best interest to have a business-law attorney review the contract prior to firing a worker. Some contracts protect workers from being fired, and even if your employees lack written contracts, a written promise of job
security could form the basis for a wrongful termination claim. In fact, even a verbal promise of continued employment may be considered a contract that protects the employee from termination. In addition, any assurances by an employer in a personnel or policy manual that limit the right to terminate to specific causes or events may overcome the presumption of at-will employment.

All employees are protected from termination on the basis of discrimination. Under federal law, it is illegal to fire someone based on his or her national origin, race, color, age, religion, genetic information, pregnancy status, or disability status. The District of Columbia Human Rights Acts also prohibits discrimination based on marital status, personal appearance, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, family responsibilities, political affiliation, and matriculation. For more information, visit the website for the D.C. Office of Human Rights.

Family and Medical Leave Act

The federal FMLA requires certain employers to provide unpaid leave to employees who have serious health conditions, need to care for sick family members, or need to take care of new children. Employers may not fire or retaliate against an employee for asserting their rights under the FMLA. The District of Columbia has its own FMLA. You can find more information about the federal FMLA at the Department of Labor’s website.

[1] D.C. Code § 11-1913.

[2] D.C. Code §§ 1-615.52-53.

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