My brother Terry claims he likes to fire people. When some problem arises and it is time for an employee to go, Terry claim he likes to “fire them straight to hell.” I am glad I don’t work for Terry, but the truth is I don’t believe him. Firing someone is one of the hardest things I have ever done. Some people need to be fired, but a lot of good people are the victims of circumstances some of which may not be their fault. So, the question is, what are the legal consequences of firing an employee? Or to put it another way, what can you do if you have been fired?
Wyoming is an employment at will state. This means that unless there is a contract of employment between the employer and the employee, each is free to terminate the relationship at any time without a reason. If you wake up on Tuesday morning and decide to quit your job there is not much the employer can do about it. The same goes for the employer. If she decides that she wants rid of you, all she has to do is tell you to pack up and git. Remember thought this is just the general rule. Rules have exceptions, and this rule has some big exceptions.
The first big exception is where there is either an express or implied contract right. For example, If you actually have an employment contract, you must follow the terms of the contract when you fire someone. I am sure George Steinbrenner would like to fire most of the New York Yankee pitching staff. Problem is they all have contracts. Where a contract exists it will usually provide that the employee cannot be terminated without just cause. Then the question becomes: What is just cause? Throwing too many high fast balls over the plate probably is not just cause. Getting convicted of betting on baseball probably is just cause.
When an employee is first hired, most employers have the employee sign what they call a disclaimer. This document usually provides that both the employer and the employee agree that the employee is an “employee at will” and his employment can be terminated at any time with or without cause. Under most circumstances these disclaimers will be enforceable and the employee can’t do much about being terminated.
If there is no enforceable disclaimer then things like employee handbooks or policies and procedures can be used as a basis to argue that the employment is subject to an implied contract. An example of this would be where the company adopts a progressive discipline policy in the employee handbook. A lot of handbooks identify things that trigger discipline under the policy. If the policy says that you can be disciplined for repeatedly being late for work, then the language may imply that you won’t be fired for being late, you will just be disciplined. Then if the employer fires you for being late and disregards his own policy then the employee may be able to successfully challenge the termination in court.
Another exception is where the termination is based upon some unlawful reason. If you fire the oldest employee or use sex, creed or national origin as a basis for the termination you may be in violation of Federal law.
Termination of employment cases are tough cases. The biggest problem is that the employee usually finds another job pretty quick and many find better jobs. This results in no damages, so no case. I know you might all be shocked by this but I have been fired from a few jobs. My attitude about it was to follow the immortal words of Johnny Paycheck. “You can take this job and shove it, cause I ain’t working here no more.” How can you go wrong with that attitude?