Employees in most states are considered “at will,” and can be removed from employment at the will of the employer at any time for any reason that is not illegal, although there are a few exceptions to this rule. D.C., Maryland and Virginia are “at will” states.
When people refer to a “wrongful discharge,” it generally means that an employer fired its employee illegally. In an “at will” jurisdiction, there are three situations where a termination will be considered “wrongful.”
The first example of a “wrongful discharge” is when an employer fires an employee because of the employee’s protected status, such as race, color, sex, religion, national origin, etc. This type of wrongful discharge falls under the federal or local anti-discrimination laws.
The second example of a “wrongful discharge” is when the employer fires an employee in violation of an employment contract. This type of wrongful termination falls under contract law and is usually governed by the terms of the employment contract and the applicable state law.
The third example of “wrongful discharge” is a termination that violates a public policy. The District of Columbia, Virginia, and Maryland recognize the claim of wrongful discharge in violation of public policy, but the scope of protections in each state vary.
Overall, public policy exceptions to the “at will” rule are rooted in clearly mandated policies that are reflected in a state or federal law. For example, many states find that it is illegal to fire an employee because they filed a legal claim against the employer, because they refused to violate a law or regulation, or because they refused to follow an instruction which would conflict with a law or a fiduciary obligation. The public policy wrongful discharge exception generally would prohibit firing an employee who blows the whistle or participates in a civic duty, such as jury duty or voting. The public policy exception is used differently in DC, Virginia and Maryland, but in all three, it requires an in-depth examination of the facts and evaluation of the law.
The “wrongful discharge” laws are fairly narrow. This means that there are dozens of reasons that an employer may fire its employee that are not illegal, even though the reason may appear unfair. For example, it is not illegal to fire an employee because of personality differences, office squabbles, personal dislike, or even a mistaken belief that the employee has done something wrong.
If you worked in DC, MD or VA and you’ve been fired and think your termination might be wrongful under the law, contact us for an evaluation of your specific situation. During an initial consultation, we can evaluate whether you may have a wrongful discharge claim and advise you how to pursue your claim, identify deadlines, and discuss options for legal representation.