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Thursday, August 27, 2015

At-Will Employment

What does the term "at-will employment" mean and is it always relevant?·

"At-will employment" refers to the fact that, under normal circumstances, in most jobs, an employer can terminate your employment at any time, for any cause except for illegal reasons, without any prior notice to the employee. This law is not as universally known as one might imagine, and many employees are startled to find out that their employment can be abruptly terminated for no apparent reason. There are laws protecting the employee when the employer has broken a labor law or violated his or her civil rights, but, in many cases, the employee has no legal recourse.

However, just because an employee is at-will, does not mean that he/she may not have a valid claim for illegal discrimination and wrongful termination. Most successful wrongful termination lawsuits are brought by at-will employees.

Generally, the reasoning behind the concept of at-will employment, is that the employee and the employer each has equal rights as to this regard. The employee can terminate the relationship, can quit his/her job at any time without prior notice to employer ( except of course if the employee is bound by a duty to cause no harm- an example would be an emergency response technician responding to an emergency.) Likewise, the employer can terminate the employer-employee relationship (except for illegal reasons) without prior notice to the employee. Illegal reasons might be unlawful retaliation for whistle-blowing, for reporting sexual harassment, for taking time off under the Family Medical Leave Act, or because because of discriminatory animus of the employer based on race, gender, sex, age, disability, sexual orientation, marital status, pregnancy and other protected categories.

At-will employment is the law in most states. While at-will clauses are typically inserted into company handbooks and many employers verbalize the rule during initial interviews, there have been cases in which employers have been held accountable for telling employees that if they continue to satisfy job requirements they needn't worry about being let go. Written statements to that effect, particularly if such assurances are made repeatedly, may be interpreted by the courts to mean that the particular employer does not adhere to an at-will policy and that the employer told the employee he/she can only be terminated “for cause”.

Additionally, in some instances, an employer may give the employee a handbook that contains the company's personnel policy. If the personnel policy sets forth certain rights of the employee, New Jersey courts have held that is possible that the handbook creates certain contract rights for the employee. Determining if contractual obligations were actually created by statements contained in the handbook is factually and legally complex and can only be achieved by a thorough examination in each case.

Exceptions to at-will firing may also occur when an employee and employer sign a binding contract. Typically, an employment contract includes the start date, salary, and benefits. Employment contracts may also contain other specific elements, such as confidentiality agreements or non-compete clauses, which spell out conditions under which the employer may legally terminate the employee's employment.

Generally, if a New Jersey employee is not a member of a labor union which has a collective bargaining agreement that specifies that an employee can only be terminated under certain conditions, or does not work for a governmental body that is part of a civil service system, or does not work under a written contract, the employee is most likely an at-will employee. 

Exceptions to at-will employment which may lead to a wrongful termination claim

Just because an employer has the right to fire an employee without stated cause does not give the employer an excuse to break the law. Employers never have the right to discriminate against an employee during the hiring, promoting, or firing process. Employees can legally challenge being fired because of:

· Discrimination because of race, religion, national origin, disability, pregnancy status, age, marital status, gender or sexual orientation

· Exercising their rights to take family leave, medical leave, military leave, leave for jury duty service or time to vote

· Retaliation for whistle blowing (reporting illegal or fraudulent activity or health and safety violations)

At-will employees do have rights. It is always wise to consult with an experienced employment law attorney when any question or concern about termination of employment arises.

Hope A. Lang, Attorney at Law, represents employees throughout New Jersey in complex employment discrimination lawsuits. She accepts cases from all counties in Northern, Southern, and Central New Jersey and has locations in central, western and northern New Jersey to meet with clients. If you believe that you have been discriminated against due to gender identity or other protected characteristic, such as age, disability, pregnancy, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation or national origin, or in retaliation for reporting what you believed to be illegal acts of your employer,  she can help you. It is important to know your rights as an employee. 

Contact Hope A. Lang, Attorney at Law, today for a free consultation. 

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