September 10, 2014
Q. Can a Virginia employer fire someone for no reason?
A. In Virginia, employees work at the will of employers. Under the at-will employment doctrine, “the employment may be terminated for any reason upon reasonable notice, but the presumption may be rebutted if sufficient evidence is produced to establish that the employment is for a definite, rather than an indefinite term,” the Supreme Court of Virginia said in Progress Printing Co. v. Nichols (1992).
So an employer generally does not need a reason to terminate an employee. Virginia employers can even rescind at-will employment offers without a reason, the Fairfax County Circuit Court said in Podraza v. Northern Virginia Psychiatric Group, P.C. (1990).
Usually, employees who have executed an employment contract have reached an agreement with the employer to perform work during a set period. At-will employees do not have this guarantee that they will be employed for such a period. The court in Progress Printing Co. did note that “an employment condition [included in an employee handbook, for example] which allows termination only for cause sets a definite term for the duration of the employment.”
However, employee handbooks usually include language stating the document does not constitute an employment contract with the employer and the employee works at the will of the employer.
In Virginia, there are exceptions to the at-will employment doctrine. Employers cannot terminate an at-will employee when the discharge would amount to a violation of public policy. Under this public policy exemption, employers cannot, for example, terminate at-will employees because they refused to engage in a criminal act.
“[A]llowing the employment at-will doctrine to ‘serve as a shield for employers who seek to force their employees, under the threat of discharge, to engage in criminal activity’ would violate this most compelling public policy,” the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia said in Williams v. Virginia (2012).
It is important to remember that the at-will employment doctrine does not override anti-discrimination laws, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Inexplicable terminations, or terminations where the employer provides contradictory reasons for the action, tend to raise red flags for unlawful discrimination or retaliation. Employees who believe they have been wrongfully discharged should immediately contact an experienced employment law attorney.
Mathew B. Tully is the founding partner of Tully Rinckey PLLC. Located in Arlington, Va. and Washington, D.C., Tully Rinckey PLLC’s attorneys practice federal employment law, military law, and security clearance representation. To speak with an attorney, call 703-525-4700 or to learn more visit fedattorney.com.