When does a termination become unlawful?

I receive calls all of the time from people who believe that have been wrongfully terminated. Unfortunately, the vast majority people who believe that they have been unlawfully terminated end up discovering that they do not have any legal recourse against their employer.

Pennsylvania is an at-will employment state which means that most employees can be terminated for any reason, a bad reason, or no reason at all except in cases of discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, religion, or age. Other than discrimination laws, the only way an employee is protected from being terminated is if they have a contract with the employer that states they can only be terminated “for cause.” Additionally, if the employee is represented by a union, additional procedural safeguards may protect the employee from termination and the employee would gain additional rights through their union’s collective bargaining agreement.

When does an unfair termination become unlawful? Only in cases of discrimination or terminations considered against public policy. What is a termination that violates public policy? This is a very rare exception and only occurs when there is a termination that violates clear mandates of public policy. This occurs when an employer asks an employee to do something illegal, the employee refuses to do so, and is then fired. Other examples include “whistleblower” cases when an employee reports a workplace safety violation to an agency and is then terminated for reporting the violation. Another example is when an employee is terminated for serving jury duty. Outside of those examples, it’s extremely rare for a court to conclude that a termination was wrongful if there are no circumstances that indicate unlawful discrimination.

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