In most states, including Pennsylvania, employment is “at-will.” In general, an employer can fire an employee from his or her job at any time and for any reason without recourse by the employee. On the other end of the relationship, an employee can also quit his or her job at any time for any reason without recourse by the employer.

There are a few important exceptions to the at-will doctrine. An employer cannot fire an employee for discriminatory or retaliatory reasons. Employees are protected from such actions by employment discrimination statutes and other laws.

Also, an employer cannot fire an employee if doing so violates the terms of an employment contract or other contract that sets the terms of the employment relationship.

An employment contract can alter the at-will doctrine

An employer and employee may enter into a contract that provides conditions of employment that supersede the at-will doctrine. For example, an employment contract can provide that the employee may only be fired for cause or specify the duration of employment.

Another example of a contract that alters the at-will doctrine is a collective bargaining agreement that covers union employees and spells out the specific circumstances under which an employee may be terminated.

Civil service positions may also be covered by employment contracts that include required standards and protocols to terminate employment.

Employers cannot use the at-will doctrine to fire an employee for discriminatory reasons

An employer cannot fire an employee for reasons that violate anti-discrimination laws. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”), the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”), and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act protect employees from being fired for reasons related to disability, race, age, religion, color, sex or national origin.

Unfortunately, some employers will attempt to use the at-will doctrine to justify firing an employee without cause when the real reason involves an illegal motivation, such as discrimination or retaliation.

For example, an employer cannot circumvent anti-discrimination laws to use the at-will doctrine as justification to fire an employee:

• who has a disability and is able to perform his or her job functions with reasonable accommodation,
• who is performing a job that the employer believes should be performed by a person of a different sex,
• who practices a religion that the employer finds objectionable.

Employees are also protected from being fired in retaliation exercising their statutory rights under anti-discrimination statutes and other laws, or for participating in investigations of alleged violations of those laws.

For example, an employer cannot retaliate against an employee and use the at-will doctrine as justification to fire an employee who:

• files a workers’ compensation claim,
• requests a reasonable accommodation for disability,
• asserts a wage and hours claim under Fair Labor Standards Act or state wage and hour law,
• communicates with coworkers about work-related issues or forming a union under the National Labor Relations Act,
• contacts a federal or state agency to report the employer’s violation of regulations,
• takes family or maternity/paternity leave,
• files a complaint with his or her employer regarding discrimination or sexual harassment in the workplace.

While most employment is at-will in Pennsylvania, you cannot be fired for a reason that violates your rights. Also, an employer cannot require you to waive your statutory rights to be free from discrimination and retaliation as a condition of employment or continued employment. For instance, any document that attempts to condition your employment on a requirement that you will not apply for maternity leave, or that requires you to refrain from talking with coworkers about unionizing your workplace, would be invalid. If you are fired for asserting your rights, your employer cannot hide behind the at-will doctrine to escape liability.

If your employer fired you under the at-will doctrine but you believe your employer was actually motivated by an illegal or discriminatory motive, you should contact an experienced employment lawyer to discuss your rights. Murphy Law Group focuses exclusively on employment law. Email us at murphy@phillyemploymentlawyer.com or call (267) 273-1054 for a free consultation.