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  • Writer's pictureDavid Manes

At-Will Employment: What does it mean?

Are you an at-will employee? How do you find out? Generally, at-will employment is the default type of employment. In Pennsylvania, this means absent a statutory or contractual provision to the contrary, either party may terminate an employment relationship for any or no reason. Therefore, the easiest way to determine if you are an at-will employee is to check your employment contract, if you have one, or talk to your employer.

But what does it mean to be an "at-will employee"? Simply put, at-will employees may be legally terminated from their position for any reason so long as it is not illegal (e.g. race discrimination, sex discrimination, etc.). However, Pennsylvania has certain exceptions to the at-will employment doctrine. This means that even if you are an at-will employee, there are limited circumstances in which an employer may not terminate you despite your at-will employee status. In sum, an employer (1) cannot require an employee to commit a crime, (2) cannot prevent an employee from complying with a statutorily imposed duty, and (3) cannot discharge an employee when specifically prohibited from doing so by statute. Terminating an employee for any of the aforementioned reasons is considered a violation of public policy. Outside of those categories, a court may find a public policy exception that will sustain a wrongful termination action only if the public policy obviously violates public health, safety, morals, or welfare and is supported by an almost unanimity in regard to it . This means proving a public policy violation requires a lot of strategy. Further, the violation must be obvious and supported by precedent.

Pennsylvania courts have found actionable exceptions where the employee was terminated for filing a claim for worker's compensation benefits, for filing a claim for unemployment benefits, for failing to submit to a polygraph test where a statute prohibited employers from so requiring, for complying with a statutory duty to report violations to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and for serving jury duty. However, this does not mean public policy exceptions are limited to these specific instances.

Arguing a violation of public policy exception to the at-will doctrine can be tricky...but not for RMN attorneys! If you believe you have been wrongfully terminated contact an RMN attorney today. or 412-626-5626.

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