Wrongful Discharge - Terminations that Violate Public Policy

posted by Neil Klingshirn  |  Sep 1, 2009 3:41 PM [EST]  |  applies to Ohio

Technically speaking, courts do not recognize a claim for "wrongful discharge," at least by that name. Broadly speaking, any discharge that violates a law, causes great harm or is grossly unfair is "wrongful."  However, courts limit claims that employees can bring to court to very specific types of claims. The specific type of claim most closely associated with the common concept of a wrongful discharge is a claim for a termination that violates an established public policy. 

Wrongful Discharge Terminations that Violate Public Policy

Wrongful discharge public policy claims grow out of contract law as an exception to the employment at-will doctrine. If an employer terminates an at-will employee for reasons that jeopardize established public policy, courts in most states will let the employee bring a claim for the harm caused by the termination. 

Although wrongful termination claims grow out of contract law, the claim itself is a creature of civil, or tort law.  Tort claims are judge made claims, like negligence claims.  As a general rule, the remedy provided by a tort claim is greater than the remedy available for a breach of contract claim. For example, very few states allow money damages for the emotional pain and suffering resulting from a breach of contract. If a termination violates public policy, however, the injured party may recover compensatory damages for emotional pain and suffering and punitive damages, if the courts recognize the claim as a tort in that state.

Four Types of Public Policy Violation Claims

Professor Ross Runkel notes that public policy wrongful discharge claims tend to fall into four categories, being where the employer fires the employee because the employee:

  1. refused to do something that was unlawful, such as dumping hazardous chemicals down the drain;
  2. performed a duty required by the law, such as responding to a subpoena;
  3. exercised a right that the law gives to employees, such as voting or complaining about sexual harassment;
  4. reported unlawful employer conduct - "whistleblowing." 

Exceptions to Public Policy Wrongful Discharge Claims


Exceptions (i.e., defenses) to public policy violation claims may include cases where:
  • the employee has an adequate, if incomplete, remedy available under another law;
  • the employee is not at-will, meaning it cannot be an exception to the employment at-will doctrine. 

Related mel Wiki Articles

The Role of Contracts in Employment Law

Overview of American At-will Employment

Implied Contract exception to Employment at-will in America

External Links

Links to external sites with additional information about this topic.

posted by Neil Klingshirn  |  Sep 1, 2009 3:41 PM [EST]  |  applies to Ohio

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