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Workplace Discrimination & At-Will Employment in Ohio



The “At-Will Employment” Doctrine is the starting point for any wrongful termination claim.  If you are wondering whether an employer terminated your employment rightfully or wrongfully, the first question you should ask is, “what reason did they give me for doing so?”  It defines the standard for what a rightful termination is. At-will employment in Ohio means almost any termination is legal.  But there are some very notable exceptions to that rule.

Such exceptions, although rare, are what’s called wrongful termination. If you have been fired for one of the following exceptions, the wrongful termination lawyers at The Bainbridge Firm will assist you with your claim.

What Does “At-Will Employment” Mean?

If you have ever thumbed through an employee handbook, you have probably seen some variation of the phrase “employment is at-will.”  This means that the employer has the right to end an employee’s employment at any time, for any reason.  Any reason also means no reason.

In short, an employer can terminate someone’s employment because they think Harry Potter is better than Star Wars.  They can terminate someone’s employment for not being sufficiently invested in the Buckeyes’ football season.  In fact, they can terminate someone’s employment because they feel that that employee has too many children, and that would distract them from performing their job.  While some of these reasons may seem silly or arbitrary, keep in mind that a silly reason is still any reason.  And “any reason” is more than an employer is obligated to give an employee as justification for their decision.

“At-will employment” is considered the default position for employment in America. This means that an employment relationship between an employer and employee does not come with any implied conditions attached.  The employee is expected to perform work in exchange for payment by the employer.  If either party wishes to stop doing so at any time, for any reason, they can walk away with no legal consequences.  Notably, this means that neither the employee, nor the employer, can sue for breach of contract if either party walks away.

Exceptions to the “At-Will Employment” Doctrine

The Ohio At-Will Employment Doctrine is very broad.  In fact, it is so broad, that it protects employers in numerous situations that many people, including legislators and judges, find unacceptable.  This has led to many government-made exceptions to this doctrine.  Many of these are created by statute.  This is where many of the anti-discrimination statutes come in.

Others are created by courts.  Courts have created exceptions to this rule when they find that allowing an employer to terminate an employee would frustrate some public policy or law.  Finally, the parties can negotiate the terms of employment in a contract, including whether that employment is at will.

The wrongful termination lawyers at The Bainbridge Firm have years of experience handling at-will employment cases. If you believe you were fired because of any of the following statutory or judicial exceptions, you can count on us for the legal assistance you need.

Anti- Discrimination Statutes

The most important and notable statute protecting employees is Title VII.  Title VII is a landmark statute that serves as the centerpiece of the civil rights movement by protecting employees against workplace discrimination.  It protects employees from being terminated based on certain protected characteristics.  Those characteristics are race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.  It is illegal for an employer to terminate an employee for any of these reasons.

Title VII, while the most notable statute, is not the only one.  The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) protects employees with disabilities from termination because of that disability.  Likewise, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”) protects employees over 40 from being terminated due to their age.  Veterans and active service members are also protected under the Uniformed Services Employment and Retirements Rights Act (“USERRA”).

Finally, many states have analogous statutes prohibiting termination based on these characteristics. For example, Ohio prohibits workplace discrimination based on “race, color, religion, sex, military status, national origin, disability, age, or ancestry.”

Anti-Retaliation Statutes

In addition to the anti-discrimination statutes listed above, exceptions exist for employees who engage in protected activity. For example, the statutes noted above protect employees who report supervisors or employment practices that discriminate against employees for one of the reasons stated above.  These are known as anti-retaliation provisions.

Many statutes governing employment have these provisions baked in.  For example, the Family and Medical Leave Act, which provides employees with job-protected leave to treat severe health conditions or care for a family member, prevents an employer from terminating their employment for attempting to exercise their rights under that statute.  Similarly, Ohio’s workers’ compensation statutes provide the same protections to employees who file workers’ compensation claims.

Other statutes, like the Occupational Health and Safety Act (“OSHA”) protect employees who report workplace safety violations to their supervisors or the government.  The National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) protects employees who are terminated in retaliation for attempting to form or operate a union.  Finally, the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) protects employees who report wage violations. Notably, the FLSA also protects employees from retaliation when discussing wages. This is a common issue that employers discourage, often through the threat of illegal action.

When to Call an Attorney

To summarize, the statutory protections noted above protect employees in two respects: (1) protected status; and (2) protected activity.  An employee should always ask if an employer is targeting them because of some characteristic they cannot control or if they are punishing them for doing something that is protected by law.

While this may not always be clear, if you think that there may be an illegal reason that an employer is targeting you, it is always best to check with an attorney. Our team is standing by at our seven convenient locations throughout Ohio to help you with your employment law needs. Schedule your free consultation with a wrongful termination lawyer today.

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