Wrongful Termination

“Everyone has been made for some particular work, and the desire for that work has been put in every heart.”

—Rumi

A wrongful termination claim in Kentucky is a very specific way for a former employee to bring a lawsuit against an employer for being fired.  It is sometimes called a wrongful discharge in violation of public policy claim, if you want to be wordy.  Below you will find a basic outline that may help you understand whether you have experienced illegal wrongful discharge (for which you can sue and have some likelihood of success), or wrongful discharge that is just wrong (but for which you would have a really hard time making out a successful legal claim).

So, what is a general overview of illegal reasons to fire an employee that are NOT a legal wrongful discharge claim?

  • Many people know that Kentucky is an employment-at-will state, meaning that your employer can fire you for any reason, no reason, a bad reason, even a morally indefensible reason SO LONG AS that reason does not violate the law. (If your boss wants to fire you because you wear red shirts, and his office is coated in Big Blue paraphernalia, that is unfortunately legal.  It’s not nice, might not even be ethical, but it’s legal.)  There are a lot of reasons an employer can terminate you that don’t violate the law.
  • It is illegal for an employer to fire you for discriminatory reasons, i.e., race, gender, age, disability, pregnancy, religion, etc., for which you can bring a lawsuit. This would be an employment discrimination civil rights claim.  The discrimination civil rights statutes provide their own laws that allow people to sue for being discriminated against.
  • It is illegal for an employer to terminate you for having reported or complained about discrimination, or for having participated in an investigation of someone else’s discrimination complaint (such as giving an eyewitness account of discriminatory conduct). This would be an employment retaliation civil rights claim. The retaliation civil rights statutes provide their own laws that allow people to sue for being retaliated against.
  • It is illegal for an employer to fire you when doing so violates an employment contract that you have with your employer. This would be a breach of contract claim.
  • It is illegal for an employer to retaliate against an employee for asserting their rights under certain statutes, such as under the Family Medical Leave Act and the Kentucky Workers’ Compensation Act. These and other statutes that protect employees provide their own laws that allow people to sue for those laws being broken.

So what IS a legal wrongful discharge in violation of public policy claim?

  • Here is the definition of the claim in legalspeak:

“The limitations to the wrongful discharge exception to the terminable-at-will doctrine are carefully set out in Firestone. We state: ‘employers as a group have a legitimate interest to protect’ which requires that ‘the cause of action for wrongful discharge [be] clearly defined and suitably controlled.’ Id.  We embraced Brockmeyer v. Dun & Bradstreet, 113 Wis. 2d 561, 335 N.W.2d 834 (1983), to establish the limitations on ‘any judicial exceptions to the employment-at-will doctrine.’ 335 S.W.2d at 835. They are:  1) The discharge must be contrary to a fundamental and well-defined public policy as evidenced by existing law.  2) That policy must be evidenced by a constitutional or statutory provision.  3) The decision of whether the public policy asserted meets these criteria is a question of law for the court to decide, not a question of fact.”

  • Here is the same definition in regularspeak:

Employees can sue when their employers fire them for a reason that the state of Kentucky has shown it feels strongly about by putting it clearly in a law, and the court gets to decide if that reason qualifies.

So what are some examples of an employer illegally wrongfully firing an employee?

  • An employee cannot be legally fired for refusing to violate the Kentucky constitution or Kentucky laws. One example of this would be an employer firing an employee because that employee refused to falsify business records, as falsifying business records is a crime in Kentucky.  Kentucky has shown that it holds truth in business records to be very important (an important public policy), so it made the falsification of those records a crime.
  • An employer cannot legally fire an employee because the employee refuses to commit perjury, which is a crime in Kentucky.
  • An employer can’t legally terminate an employee for refusal to condone irregular medical billing.
  • Employees in the healthcare industry cannot be legally fired for registering complaints about patient care and safety problems, because the Kentucky Patient Safety Act is a law that shows Kentucky has a strong public policy regarding the safety of patients in healthcare settings.

Keep in mind that an employee faced with TRULY intolerable conditions of employment (and it would have to be truly intolerable to ANY reasonable person in their position), who is therefore compelled to quit because of those conditions, is “constructively” discharged.  So if an employer imposes truly intolerable working conditions on you and causes you to quit, you would still have a wrongful discharge claim IF the employer imposed those conditions for reasons that would otherwise fit into a wrongful discharge claim, like your refusal to violate a law.

If your employer is getting up to something illegal and wants to make you part of it, you have the right to refuse.  If your employer fired you because you refused to violate the law, it may be time to contact an employment law attorney.