What are some of the most common types of public policy exceptions to the employment-at-will doctrine?

In most states, employers may not fire or discriminate against employees for serving on jury duty, exposing criminality in the workplace, filing a workers' compensation claim, protecting others from physical danger, or refusing to take a polygraph test.

However, sometimes what seems like good public policy does not result in a favorable outcome for an employee. A good example is the case of Green v. Winston Murphy Bryant (1995) in Pennsylvania. The case involved the employee of a doctor's office who was terminated after she informed a physician that her physical injuries were the result of a severe beating she endured from her estranged husband. The doctor's office fired the woman, ostensibly because they feared the estranged husband might pose a danger to the office staff.

The woman sued, but a reviewing federal district court ruled that Green was an at-will employee who did not have a legal claim. Ms. Green argued that her dismissal violated two public policies protecting employee privacy rights and protecting victims of domestic violence. She pointed out that there was a Pennsylvania law that created a crime victim's compensation board that applied to domestic violence victims. However, the court pointed out that this law was a general criminal law that did not create a "protected employment class." The court concluded that "in the absence of any indication that Pennsylvania has established a clear mandate that crime victims generally, or spousal abuse victims specifically, are entitled to benefits or privileges beyond those enumerated in the laws, I must conclude that plaintiff's dismissal was not in violation of public policy."

What is the story of Jason Little and how the public policy exception to employment at will protected him from physical assault?

Jason Little worked as a clerk for a convenience store in Jackson, Tennessee. While on duty, Little noticed a man across the street assaulting a woman. Little grabbed a baseball bat from under the store counter, ran across the street and yelled at the man. Little's actions saved the woman from further harm.

LegalSpeak: Montana's Law: MSA 39-2904

Elements of wrongful discharge. A discharge is wrongful only if:

(1) it was in retaliation for the employee's refusal to violate public policy or for reporting a violation of public policy;

(2) the discharge was not for good cause and the employee had completed the employer's probationary period of employment; or

(3) the employer violated the express provisions of its own written personnel policy.

Two days later the store fired Little for leaving store property to engage in a fight. The store claimed that it could not risk this sort of "liability." Little sued for wrongful termination, alleging he was subjected to a retaliatory discharge for protecting the safety of a third party. He cited a Tennessee statute providing that a person is justified in using or threatening to use physical force to protect another person.

The Tennessee Court of Appeals agreed with a trial court's refusal to dismiss Little's retaliatory discharge claim. "Here, Tennessee's public policy of placing a high priority on the sanctity of human life is clearly evinced in its statutes," the appeals court wrote in Little v. Eastgate of Jackson (2007). The appeals court believed that Tennessee law showed a clear public policy of encouraging people to act to protect people who are in "imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm."

What state passed a law that repealed the employment at-will doctrine?

Montana is the only state that has passed a law that eliminated the at-will employment doctrine. Montana had a statute that provided for at-will employment. However, in 1987 the Montana legislature passed law called the Wrongful Discharge from Employment Act (WDFEA). It established that for employers needed good cause to fire employees who have completed their probationary periods of employment.

The interesting part of this was that when the Montana legislature passed its wrongful discharge law, it did not repeal its prior statute providing for at-will employment. However, in Whidden v. Nerison (1999), the Montana Supreme Court ruled that the Montana legislature repealed the at-will statute by implication, writing: "[W]e hold ... that the WDFEA has superseded and impliedly repealed the at-will act." The Montana high court also determined that the burden is on an employer to determine that an employee was discharged during a probationary period.

Anti-discrimination laws are designed to prevent employers from not hiring someone just because of his or her race, religion, gender, or national origin. A diverse workforce can actually benefit a business, as it can allow for a broader range of input from employees with various backgrounds and experiences (iStock).

Anti-discrimination laws are designed to prevent employers from not hiring someone just because of his or her race, religion, gender, or national origin. A diverse workforce can actually benefit a business, as it can allow for a broader range of input from employees with various backgrounds and experiences (iStock).

 
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