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When an Employee Cannot Be Fired: Exceptions to the At-Will Employment Rule


When an Employee Cannot Be Fired: Exceptions to the At-Will Employment Rule


As we discussed in a previous blog post, most jobs in Massachusetts are categorized as at-will employment. This general rule means that employers or employees may terminate their relationship for any cause, or no cause at all, however there are several exceptions to the general rule. Below are some exceptions to the at-will employment rule:

1. Federal or State Statute

A federal or state statute may prevent an employer from terminating the employment relationship in specific circumstances. For example, under both federal and Massachusetts law, employers may not terminate an employee that is a member of a protected category for a discriminatory reason (e.g. race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age, etc.). This means that an employee cannot be fired because of her race, religion, or gender, to name a few protected categories. However, just because an individual is a member of a protected category does not make any termination legally actionable. The employee must have been fired specifically for a discriminatory reason. Massachusetts’s law also forbids employers from terminating an employee out of retaliation after that employee made a complaint to an outside agency regarding discrimination or illegal conduct in some situations.

2. Implied Covenant of Good Faith & Fair Dealing

Every contract in Massachusetts includes an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. This essentially means that no party to a contract should intentionally act in a manner that would harm another party’s ability reap the benefits of the contract. A common example of a breach of this covenant occurs when an employer terminates an employee just before the employee was set to receive a bonus, to avoid payment of the bonus.

3. Public Policy

In order to establish an exception to at-will employment based on this exception, there must have been a violation of a clearly established public policy. The three recognized categories of clearly established public policies include:

a. Termination for asserting a legally guaranteed right (e.g. voting).

b. Termination for doing what the law requires of them (e.g. jury duty, reporting suspected child abuse in positions that require mandatory reporting).

c. Termination for refusing to do what the law forbids them to do (e.g. helping the employer commit fraud).

In addition to these three well-established exceptions, there have been circumstances where a court has found that termination for voluntarily assisting with a government investigation also falls under the public policy exception.

While it may seem clear that an exception to the general at-will employment rule is present in some cases (especially where there is a violation of a federal or state statute), a fact-specific inquiry is often needed to determine whether or not an employee’s specific circumstances falls within an established exception.

If you have questions about employment law or the end of your employment relationship, please contact a lawyer in our office today at (781) 930-3127.