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Does At-Will Really Mean You Can Be Fired for ANY Reason?

The title of this blog post is a bit of a trick question. You see, New Jersey, like many states, is an at-will employment state, and the tried and true definition of “at-will” employment means that you can be fired (or you can quit) for any reason or no reason at all. The trick comes in to play because there are a lot of exceptions to what lawyers and HR professionals call the “at-will employment doctrine”. That means that “any reason” does not really mean any reason.

So when is at-will really not at-will? Let’s start with the basics. There are contractual and statutory exceptions to the at-will employment doctrine. Some contractual exceptions include a contract for term (meaning an agreement or contract to work for a specific period of time that does not include “at-will” language), union collective bargaining agreements with “for cause” termination provisions, or, under certain circumstances, personnel handbooks. In addition to the contractual exceptions to the at-will doctrine, there are also statutory exceptions. What does that mean? It’s not as complicated as it sounds. It simply means that you cannot be fired for reasons that violate employment laws.

While there are many federal laws that provide exceptions to the at-will doctrine (such as the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA and ADAAA), Title VII, and the Age Discrimination Employment Act (ADEA) to name a few) and many states also have their own laws on this issue, we will focus on New Jersey’s laws. For example, the Law Against Discrimination (commonly referred to as the LAD) prevents employers from making employment decisions or taking employment actions because of any of the following protected characteristics:

  • age,
  • disability,
  • sex (gender),
  • pregnancy,
  • religion (creed)
  • race or color,
  • national origin,
  • nationality,
  • ancestry,
  • marital status,
  • civil union status,
  • domestic partnership status,
  • affectional or sexual orientation,
  • genetic information,
  • gender identity or expression,
  • atypical hereditary cellular or blood trait of any individual,
  • because of the liability for service in the Armed Forces of the United States, or
  • because of the refusal to submit to a genetic test or make available the results of a genetic test to an employer.

Whew! That’s a long list but it doesn’t end there. In fact, our State’s whistleblower law, the Conscientious Employee Protection Act (commonly referred to as CEPA), gives us even more exceptions to the at-will doctrine. CEPA protects from retaliation employees who disclose, threaten to disclose, object to or provide information or testify about conduct that the whistleblowing employee reasonably believes (a) violates a law or rule or regulation or (b) is incompatible with a clear mandate of public policy concerning public health, safety, or welfare or the protection of the environment.

So what does this all mean for figuring out what at-will employment really means? Well, to make a long story short, it means that you cannot be fired because of any of the bullet pointed protected characteristics above (for example, age, disability, gender, pregnancy, religion, race, etc.) or because you are a whistleblower. Beware, though, that it doesn’t mean that you can’t be fired because you just so happen to be a member of one of those protected characteristic or blow the whistle. The exceptions only come into play if you are being fired “because of” those reasons. To make things more complicated, “because of” doesn’t really mean the sole or only reason – instead, it means a motivating reason.

So the obvious next question is how do you decide whether one of your protected characteristics or your whistleblowing was a motivating reason for your firing? Well, the answer to that question very much depends on the facts and circumstances of your individual situation. The best way to really figure out the answer to that question is to talk to an employment attorney like New Jersey’s employment attorneys at Lenzo & Reis, LLC.

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