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The Common Law

Employment law – wrongful termination

By Luke Ellis and Nathan Moss, May 6, 2005, Columns

Can you explain what a wrongful termination suit is? When it comes down to he said/she said between an employer and employee, who does the law favor in a wrongful termination suit?

In Texas, as in most states, employment is governed by the "employment-at-will doctrine." This doctrine specifies that an employee or an employer may end the employment at any time without cause. Nevertheless, under certain conditions, an employee may sue an employer for termination, which creates what is called a "wrongful termination" lawsuit.

There are exceptions to the employment-at-will doctrine, such as a written contract between the employer and employee, that allow the employer and employee to alter the employment relationship. Oral promises from the employer to the employee could also alter the employment-at-will doctrine in very limited circumstances. If the employer were to deviate from the written or oral contract by terminating an employee, then the employee could sue the employer for wrongful termination.

Some of the most common suits today are retaliatory termination suits. This is when an employee is fired for committing an act, within their rights, that the company did not like. A frequent current example involves workers' compensation claims. For example, sometimes an employee will file for workers' compensation, and then the company terminates their employment because they do not want to pay or were unhappy that the employee filed for workers' compensation.

Wrongful termination suits can also be sought if an employee was terminated based on their race or sex. Employees have also brought suits against their former employers for defamation, fraud, tortuous interference, and other related claims.

Texas courts generally do not favor wrongful termination suits, and many of these lawsuits are unsuccessful. In many cases, courts will defer to the employer's reasons for termination (because no cause is needed under the employment-at-will doctrine) unless the employee can bring strong evidence of ulterior motives that demonstrate wrongful termination.

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