The term “employment at-will” can be somewhat deceptive. Under this heading, it is understood that either the employee or the employer may terminate their relationship at any time and for any reason.
However, state and federal laws place limits on the seemingly free-wheeling nature of at-will employment, most of which benefit employees. Employers cannot wrongfully terminate employees for discriminatory reasons relating to their sex, race, ethnicity, or religion. Similarly, employers are barred from firing an employee as retaliation against whistle-blowing or for taking family and medical leave.
Employers are also not allowed to discriminate against active or reserve military personnel who must fulfill the requirements of their service in the armed forces. This particular question, and the wrongful termination of an employee as the result of his employer’s bias against his military service, is at the heart of a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that strengthens the rights of employees against discriminatory practices by employers.
In the case Staub vs. Proctor Hospital, Staub, a hospital employee, contended that he was terminated as a direct result of his supervisor’s bias against his military service, which required that he report to the military base on various weekends and for two or three weeks per year. His supervisor contended that such absences put a strain on the hospital’s resources and she collaborated with her supervisor to terminate Staub. The firing decision eventually came under the purview of a third supervisor who performed the actual termination.
Staub sued for wrongful termination and won the initial case. The hospital appealed the decision, and this time the court decided in their favor. Staub appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor and ultimately strengthened the rights of the American worker. The court’s decision, as delivered by Justice Antonin Scalia, read in part that: “the employer is at fault [when the] ‘discriminatory animus’ [of a supervisor] was intended to cause, or did in fact cause, an adverse employment decision.”