What is at-will employment?
Employees who are unhappy with something that has happened at work often send us email messages seeking help. For example, they may complain that they have had their hours reduced, their office moved, or don’t get a lunch break. Of course, these employees don’t think what has happened is fair. They need the money from the extra hours they no longer work.
Another story we’ve heard recently involved an interpersonal conflict between an employee and her supervisor. The employee told us that her new store manager fired her just because he didn’t like her. Well, we can understand how that hardly seems fair.
These situations and many others are covered by the doctrine of at-will employment. And oftentimes employees are simply out of luck in these situations—assuming there are no other complicating factors. These employees have no legal remedy; that is to say, the law doesn’t give them a reason to sue or otherwise seek redress. This is because Alabama employees can be hired “at will,” fired “at will,” or promoted or demoted “at will.” There are some exceptions to that statement, and we’ll talk about them later in the post, but at-will employment is where we always have to start when it comes to Alabama employment law.
How is at-will employment defined?
As we often say, an Alabama employer can fire an employee for a good reason, a bad reason, or no reason at all. Put another way, an employer may terminate an employee with or without justification or reason. An employer can even fire the employee for a malicious or improper reason as long as that reason does not violate state or federal law.
Unless there is a contract that says otherwise, this termination can occur at any time.
In explaining this concept, courts often point out that an employee can quit for a good reason, a bad reason, or no reason at all. But the ability to quit at will is usually of little comfort to an employee who has been terminated for what he or she feels is an unfair reason.
There is a corollary to this rule as well: An employee can be hired, promoted, or demoted for a good reason, a bad reason, or no reason at all. And the conditions of employment are pretty much at the discretion of the employer. For example, there is no law that requires employers to provide paid—or even unpaid—vacation leave.
Even worse, under most circumstances, the at-will employment doctrine means that an employee’s complaints about no vacation time, lack of hours, or required overtime can be a perfectly legal reason for terminating employment.
As with most general rules, there are some exceptions. Alabama law provides for a number of exceptions (which are discussed below) and federal law also has a large number of exceptions. See our blogs about pregnancy discrimination, genetic discrimination, and race discrimination. (There are a large number of other exceptions to the at-will employment doctrine mandated by federal law, such as sex, color, religious, disability, and national-origin discrimination; racial and sexual harassment; and retaliation for complaining about violations of the minimum wage laws.)
Even though Alabama courts have a reputation for the being among the strongest proponents of the employment-at-will doctrine, there are some exceptions that have been carved out.
1. An employee cannot be terminated because he or she files a claim for workers’ compensation benefits or reports the violation of a safety regulation. Ala. Code § 25-5-11.1. The legislature enacted this provision after the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that an employee could be fired for filing a workers’ compensation claim. Meeks v. Opp Cotton Mills, Inc., 459 So. 2d 814 (Ala. 1984).
By the way, firing someone for filing a workers’ compensation claim is normally referred to as “retaliatory discharge.” But don’t be misled by that term. It doesn’t mean that an employee may sue an employer who has retaliated against and fired the employee for another reason (like the employee told the boss he was a jerk). To be legally actionable, the retaliatory discharge must arise from filing a workers’ compensation claim or reporting a safety violation.
2. An employee cannot be terminated because he or she serves on a jury. Ala. Code § 12-16-18.1. This statutory exception to at-will employment came about because of a decision by the Alabama Supreme Court that held an employer could fire an employee for responding to a jury subpoena. Bender Ship Repair, Inc. v. Stevens, 379 So. 2d 594 (Ala. 1980).
3. An employee cannot be terminated without following certain procedures set forth in an employee handbook, provided that the procedures rise to the level of being an employment contract. Hoffman-La Roche, Inc. v. Campbell, 512 So.2d 725 (Ala.1987). But most Alabama employers have learned to put disclaimers in their handbooks that preserve the at-will employment status of employees. In fact, we don’t know of any cases that have succeeded at using the employee-handbook-as-contract approach since the 1987 decision recognizing this. Michelin Tire Corp. v. Goff, 864 So. 2d 1068 (Ala. Civ. App. 2002).
4. If an employee is over 40 years old, age discrimination is prohibited in hiring, job retention, compensation, or other conditions of employment. Alabama Code § 25-1-21.
5. An employer cannot force an employee to be a member of a labor union. Alabama Code § 25-7-32.
6. Formal employment contracts can limit the doctrine of at-will employment. For example, an employment contract can provide that the employee will not be terminated except for a good cause. An employment agreement can also “guarantee” the time the employee will be employed. Trenier v. City of Prichard, 168 So. 3d 22, 30 (Ala. 2014).
So what does this mean for the employee who feels he or she has been wronged in the workplace? The first place to start is an employment contract. If there is no contract, then the only recourse would exist if there’s been a violation of state or federal law. Absent a violation of state or federal law, the only option available is to make peace with the situation—or find a new job.
Items on this web page are general in nature. They cannot—and should not—replace consultation with a competent legal professional. Nothing on this web page should be considered rendering legal advice.