David G. Schiller represents North Carolina employees in a wide range of employment law cases — including wrongful discharge.
North Carolina employees are protected from being wrongful discharged. This is one of the few exceptions to the “employment-at-will” rule and is entirely created by case law, not by statute. The wrongful discharge cause of action protects employees from being fired “for an unlawful reason or purpose that contravenes public policy.”
Public policy “has been defined as the principle of law which holds that no citizen can lawfully do that which has a tendency to be injurious to the public or against the public good.” “Although the definition of ‘public policy’ . . . does not include a laundry list of what is or is not ‘injurious to the public or against the public good,’ at the very least public policy is violated when an employee is fired in contravention of express policy declarations contained in the North Carolina General Statutes.”
While it is not absolutely clear what conduct violates the “the public policy of North Carolina,” it is reasonably certain the North Carolina statutes reflect “the public policy of North Carolina.” Therefore, if an employee is fired for refusing his or her employer’s instruction to break the law, the employee will likely have a viable wrongful discharge claim.
The North Carolina Court of Appeals recently observed that wrongful discharge claims have been recognized in North Carolina where the employee was discharged in the following circumstances:
1. “for refusing to violate the law at the employer’s request”
2. “for engaging in a legally protected activity,”
3. “based on activity by the employer contrary to law or public policy.”
The North Carolina appellate courts have recognized the discharge of the following people was in violation of “the public policy of North Carolina”:
A nurse was wrongfully discharged in retaliation for refusing to testify falsely in a medical malpractice case.
A truck driver who refused to operate his truck in violation of federal law and to falsify federal records.
An employee who made unflattering comments to the media and in deposition testimony about improper housing authority practices.
An employee who was discharged due to his political affiliation and activities.
An employee refused to work for less than the statutory minimum wage.
An employee alleged he was handicapped and that his employer discharged him because of his handicap in violation of N.C. Gen.Stat. § 143-422.2.
North Carolina General Statute § 143-422.2., Legislative Declaration, expressly states the public policy of North Carolina with respect to employment discrimination:
It is the public policy of this State to protect and safeguard the right and opportunity of all persons to seek, obtain and hold employment without discrimination or abridgement on account of race, religion, color, national origin, age, sex or handicap by employers which regularly employ 15 or more employees.
N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-422.2 provides a statutory basis for a wrongful discharge claim based upon discrimination. There are federal statutes that protect employees against discrimination on the basis of race, religion, color, national origin, age, sex or handicap. However, the wrongful discharge cause of action may be appropriate in a case in which the employee has missed administrative deadlines.
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