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Can I Be Sued for Firing an At-Will Employee?

In Pennsylvania, all workers not under contract are considered to be at-will employees. This means that an organization has the right to dismiss any employee at any time for any legal reason. But the key word is “legal.” State and federal laws prohibit employment actions that have a discriminatory intent or effect based on race, gender, religion and other individual characteristics.

  • Pennsylvania Human Relations Act
  • Americans with Disabilities Act
  • Age Discrimination in Employment Act
  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
  • Family and Medical Leave Act

A termination or other adverse action is also illegal if it is in retaliation for the employee asserting or exercising their rights under those laws. There are specific remedies provided in each statute, including recovery of substantial damages and attorneys’ fees.

What’s more, workers cannot be fired for engaging in an activity or enjoying a benefit protected by statute or public policy. Pennsylvania courts have found at-will employees were illegally dismissed over:

  • Refusing to perform an illegal activity requested by the employer
  • Refusing to take a lie detector test
  • Reporting illegal activity by the employer
  • Having a prior criminal conviction unrelated to the job requirements
  • Performing a public duty, such as voting or jury duty
  • Filing an unemployment claim or worker’s compensation claim
  • Reporting or stating an intention to report OSHA violations
  • Not consenting to a privacy violating random drug test or property search
  • Testifying to authorities against co-workers or bosses

If an employee is fired under any of these circumstances, they may sue you for wrongful termination and/or retaliation. Even negative treatment that leads to an employee resigning can be a ground for a lawsuit. An employee can claim to have suffered a “constructive discharge,” namely that working conditions were so intolerable that a reasonable person would see no other option but to quit.

While an employer does not need articulable grounds for firing an at-will employee, it can find itself at a disadvantage if it cannot show a rationale for the firing when confronted by a wrongful termination claim. Every employer should establish and follow best practices for employee relations and document problems with employees’ work performance or other conduct and any remedial or disciplinary action that may be required. Experienced legal counsel can offer valuable assistance in this regard.

The attorneys at Feldstein Grinberg Lang & McKee, P.C. in Pittsburgh can assist with questions related to employee termination and best business practices. Call 412-301-7395 or contact us online to see how we can help.

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