Raleigh Employment Litigation Lawyers – Retaliatory Termination in Violation of Public Policy

June 5, 2013

North Carolina is an employment “at-will” state. Employment at will provides that employment can be terminated by either party at any time, for any reason, absent a contractual agreement.  If you are an employee or employer, it must be emphasized that there are multiple exceptions to this general rule. If you are an employee that has been wrongfully discharged or wrongfully terminated or if you are an employer wanting to ensure compliance with the law, contact the employment law attorneys at Maginnis Law, PLLC. Maginnis Law is a Raleigh civil litigation firm with attorneys handling employment matters relating to NC Wage and Hour Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and other business law disputes. Contact the firm at 919.526.0450 or submit a new case inquiry here.

Exceptions to the employment at will doctrine generally revolve around:

  1. Public policy
  2. Implied contract terms
  3. Duty of good faith and fair dealing

The public policy exception applies when an employee is terminated by an employer “for an unlawful reason or purpose that contravenes North Carolina public policy.” Courts have accepted implied contract theories for wrongful discharge by examining statements in employment handbooks and manuals as well as verbal and written assurances. This exception has been given little weight in North Carolina. The duty of good faith and fair dealing can be breached by an employer when the termination was premised upon bad faith or malice. Historically, North Carolina has not been inclined to apply this doctrine.

The Public Policy exception is by far the most recognized modification of employment at will and is the only doctrine expressly adopted in North Carolina. To recover under this theory, the employee must demonstrate that he was terminated because he “performed an act that public policy would encourage or refused to do something that public policy would condemn.” The court stated that “while there may be a right to terminate a contract at will for no reason, or for an arbitrary or irrational reason, there can be no right to terminate such a contract for an unlawful reason or purpose that contravenes public policy.” If you have any questions about what constitutes a wrongful discharge or wrongful termination, call Maginnis Law PLLC at 919.526.0450.

There are three general categories of discharge in which North Carolina courts have applied the public policy exception:

  1. Refusal to commit an unlawful act
  2. Performance of a public obligation
  3. Exercise of an employee’s legal rights or privileges

The refusal to commit unlawful acts include claims where an employee was dismissed for declining to participate in illegal actions, refusing to perform unlicensed medical procedures, or refusing to perform unethical tasks. Termination based on an employee’s performance of public obligations includes serving on a jury and “whistle blowing” illegal activities. The last category of actionable termination includes cases involving discharges for filing a workers’ compensation claim, refusing to take polygraph tests, refusing to work for less than minimum wage, and filing a violation under the Wage and Hour Act. In addition to case law on wrongful discharge, there are numerous North Carolina statutes that protect employees from wrongful termination.

Simply because an employee could find recourse under federal or state statutory remedies does not automatically allow for a claim for wrongful discharge based on the public policy exception. If you are an employee and have been wrongfully discharged or terminated, or if you are an employer or business needing assistance with the North Carolina Wage and Hour Act or Fair Labor Standards Act, contact the civil litigation attorneys at Maginnis Law, PLLC. We regularly represent clients throughout the Triangle, including Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, Cary, Apex, Knightdale, Morrisville, and Garner. Our firm offers a variety of billing arrangements such as hourly, retainer, and flat rate. To speak our civil attorneys, contact the firm at 919.526.0450, or send a confidential email inquiry using our contact page.

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