In Florida, an employment relationship can be terminated “at will.” This means that an employer can fire the employee, or the employee can walk away from the job, whenever they wish, for any reason or no reason at all. This applies unless there is a valid employment contract specifying a definite term of employment or limiting the reasons for termination. The employment-at-will right can also be subject to some limitations.
“At Will” is not the same as “Right to Work”
The common law doctrine of employment-at-will is sometimes confused with the term “right to work.” While “at will” refers to the right to terminate the employment relationship, “right to work” refers to the right of a person to work without being compelled to become a member of a labor union.
In some states, an employer’s right to discharge an employee under the employment-at-will doctrine has been subject to three major exceptions:
- When termination is contrary to public policy (e.g., against an established public policy of the state, like when an employee is terminated for filing a worker’s compensation claim, during family leave, or for refusing to break the law for the employer.)
- When there is an implied contract (e.g., an employer may make oral or written representations to an employee that may create a contract for employment, like assurances that the employee will have a job as long as she performs it well.)
- When there is a covenant of good faith and fair dealing (e.g., when discharge is in bad faith or with malice, like termination of a long-term employee to avoid paying retirement benefits.)
Not all states follow the exceptions. In Florida, although courts have historically rejected exceptions to the employment-at-will doctrine, they have accepted some public policy limitations, particularly when there exists a violation of state or federal law by the employer resulting in the wrongful termination of the employee. For example, the following has been prohibited in Florida:
- Florida law prohibits discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, pregnancy, religion, disability, age, marital status, AIDS/HIV, or sickle-cell trait. Any termination based on these factors is prohibited. (In Florida, employers must comply with these laws if they have 15 or more employees.)
- Termination of employment for filing a worker’s compensation claim.
- Termination of an employee in retaliation for reporting illegal activity (“whistleblowing”).
- Termination of employment for filing a claim for failure to pay wages or overtime.
- Termination for filing a sexual harassment complaint.
- A Florida court prohibited the termination of an employee for keeping a gun in his car parked at the employer’s parking lot, when the employee possessed a concealed weapons permit.
- A Florida court awarded damages to a claimant who relied on an employer’s promises for employment and relocated his family to the United States, when shortly thereafter the employer terminated the employment relationship.
The Florida Commission on Human Relations (FCHR) enforces state laws prohibiting discrimination. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the federal agency that enforces federal antidiscrimination laws. An employee who has been wrongfully terminated based on discriminatory practices may report their situation to these organizations for investigation. However, the wrongfully discharged employee should contact an attorney to assess their situation and evaluate their private cause of action against the employer.
Damages and Statute of Limitations
Wrongful termination claims may be based on different legal theories, such as breach of contract, discrimination, and tort (e.g., personal injury, physical or reputational), among others. Depending on the legal claim presented, a victim of wrongful termination may be entitled to recover lost wages, lost benefits, injunctive relief, compensation for non-economic injuries (like mental anguish, embarrassment, humiliation and emotional pain and suffering), as well as punitive damages and attorney fees and costs. Further, the statute of limitations varies for the different wrongful termination legal theories, so, the employee should contact an attorney immediately so as to not forego any possible claims.
Whether you are an employer or a claimant, the Orlando employment law attorneys of Burruezo & Burruezo can assist you in assessing your options under a wrongful termination situation and offer legal representation, if necessary. Click here to contact an attorney now.