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Exceptions To At-Will Doctrine

September 10, 2020 At-Will Employment

“At Will” Doesn’t Mean “No Legal Protections”

“At will” means your employer can terminate you for any reason and at any time—or for no reason at all. An employer can also change the terms of your employment at any time—including your salary, benefits, or vacation time.

At its worst, the at-will doctrine can leave employees vulnerable to capricious firings and detrimental changes in their work situation. However, there are a few exceptions to at-will doctrine that offer some protection.

How At-Will Employment Works in Pennsylvania

In Pennsylvania, like most states, anyone hired without a contract that spells out clearly-defined terms of employment and termination is considered “at will.” That means your employer can fire you for any reason, regardless of job performance—as long as they aren’t breaking any state or federal laws in firing you.

If you believe your employer violated your rights in firing you, the burden of proof is on you. Your employer may indeed have broken one or several laws in firing you, including:

  • The Pennsylvania Human Relations Act
  • Americans with Disabilities Act
  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
  • The Family and Medical Leave Act

Under these laws, an illegal firing is usually done for discriminatory reasons, or because an employee did something they have a right to do—such as taking FMLA leave to care for a sick family member.

But even if your employer broke none of the above laws, they may still have wrongfully fired you.

Other Exceptions to “At Will” Doctrine

At the state and federal level, lawmakers generally want to prevent companies from firing employees when the reason for the firing goes against public policy or the public good.

In Pennsylvania, the courts have generally found at-will dismissals to have gone against public policy when employees have been fired for:

  • Refusing to do something illegal
  • Refusing to take a polygraph test
  • Reporting an employer’s illegal activity or safety violations
  • Taking time off to report for jury duty or other public duties
  • Filing unemployment or worker’s compensation claims
  • Testifying to authorities against colleagues or supervisors

Employees With Contracts

If you weren’t hired with a specific contract that states your terms of employment and termination, you are considered an at-will employee in Pennsylvania. You may also be considered at-will if you have a contract that specifically says that you are.

However, if you’re working under a contract that states specific terms of employment and termination, and that doesn’t state you are at will, then you are not an at-will employee. You can still be fired before the end of your employment term, but your employer has to have a justifiable reason.

In addition, your contract doesn’t have to be written down. Oral and implied contracts are also valid and binding to employees, although it is more difficult to prove they exist.

Have You Been Wrongfully Fired? Call a Philadelphia Employment Lawyer

If you believe you’ve been wrongfully fired, you may have a case in court—even if you were an at-will employee.

A knowledgeable employment attorney can determine whether your rights were violated and defend your rights in court. Call us at 267-273-1054 or email us at for a free, confidential consultation today.

The information provided here does not constitute legal advice. It is intended for general purposes only. If you have questions about a specific legal issue, you should speak to an attorney.