As I have mentioned before, most states including North Carolina and Tennessee follow the legal doctrine of employment-at-will. That doctrine holds that an employee can be terminated (fired) at any time for any reason with no legal liability for the employer. An employee-at-will can be fired for an unethical reason, an unfair reason, in violation of company policies or even on the basis of a lie, and there is no legal claim the employee can bring. A wrongful firing claim can only be brought in an employment-at-will state if there was an unlawful motive for the termination.
I often speak to employees who have been retaliated against by their employers. The legal problem for these employees is that retaliation is not, by itself, unlawful in an employment-at-will state. That is true even if the company policies prohibit retaliation.
This brings up a few questions. First, does this mean an employee-at-will can never file a claim for unlawful retaliation? Not at all. An employee may file a claim if the retaliation is unlawful. Second, well when is workplace retaliation unlawful? It is unlawful when it is based on a protected activity. Therefore, if an employee engages in a protected activity and its fired for the protected activity, the employee can bring a claim for wrongful firing (wrongful termination).
The harder question is: what activities are protected? This is a hard question because the law does not provide a comprehensive list. To determine what activities are protected, you must examine both state and federal statutory law as well as case law. While not a complete list, protected activities will include any of the following activities:
- reporting unlawful employment discrimination or harassment;
- reporting an on-the-job injury or filing a workers compensation claim;
- using or attempting to use FMLA the employee is entitled to use;
- reporting an employer, manager or co-workers to an appropriate governmental agency for violations of the law;
- refusing to engage in an unlawful act;
- making certain types of complaints under the wage and hour law;
- jury duty and
- military service.
Certainly these are not the only protected activities but they are the most common.
If you feel that you have been subjected to unlawful retaliation in your workplace or connected to your employment, you can contact our law firm for representation. In Tennessee, contact our Knoxville office. In North Carolina, you can contact our Concord (Charlotte) or Greensboro office.