The well-known, but often despised, "employment-at-will doctrine" means that, without a written employment contract, employees can be terminated for any reason, or no reason at all. Regardless, most employees believe that if they perform their jobs in a satisfactory manner, they should have some amount of job security. This is not always the case, however.
What is the Employment-At-Will Doctrine?
The idea behind the employment-at-will doctrine is that people should be free of any obligations in the employment context, unless there is a written contract. In other words, just as an employee can quit his or her job at any time, for any reason, the employer should also be allowed to end the employment relationship. There are a few state-recognized exceptions to this doctrine, which are meant to prevent wrongful terminations.
What Are The Most Common Exceptions to the Employment-At-Will Doctrine?
In addition to the federal exceptions to the employment-at-will doctrine, such as discrimination and retaliation, each state can create certain exceptions on their own. The most common exceptions seen in various state courts are implied employment contracts, implied covenants of good faith and fair dealing, and violation of a state's public policy. An implied employment contract can be created when an employer makes representations regarding continued employment through oral assurances or statements made in employer handbooks, policies, or other written statements. A minority of states has found that an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing exists with regard to the employment relationship in general.
What is the Public Policy Exception?
The public policy exception prevents an employee from being terminated if it would be against an explicit, well-established state public policy. Some common examples are terminations based on the employee filing a worker's compensation claim or an employee's refusal to engage in illegal conduct for the employer. Public policy is typically determined by the state's constitutions, statutes, or administrative rules.
Where Does Alabama Stand on the Public Policy Exception?
Alabama does not recognize a generalized public policy exception to the employment-at-will doctrine. Instead, the Alabama Supreme Court has held that exceptions to the employment-at-will doctrine must be made through the state legislature. Indeed, even in the face of clear gender or race discrimination, the Alabama Supreme Court would not make an exception. In the case of Howard v. Wolff Broadcasting Corp., decided in 1992, the Alabama Supreme Court upheld the "at-will" doctrine where the plaintiff was terminated solely because she was female.
Unfortunately, the plaintiff could not bring a federal claim for discrimination because the employer did not have the minimum number of employees. Because Alabama's legislature has not created the public policy exception, and there is no state law prohibiting gender discrimination, her claims were dismissed. There have been similar rulings in Alabama with regard to employees refusing to violate the law for their employers. See Wright v. Dothan Chrysler Plymouth Dodge, Inc.
Legislative Exceptions Recognized in Alabama
The good news is, there are a few "public policy" exceptions that have been created by state law in Alabama. First, employees who expose the illegal activity of their employers (referred to as whistleblowers), are protected from termination on that basis. Ala. Code § 36-25-24 (1975). Employers are also prohibited from terminating employees in retaliation for filing a Workers' Compensation claim. Ala. Code § 25-5-11.1.