Wrongful Termination in D.C. and Virginia
Employment in Virginia and the District of Columbia is generally "at-will," meaning that the employer or employee may terminate the employment relationship at any time, for any lawful reason, or for no reason at all. In other words, and contrary to what appears to be popular belief, not all termnations are wrongful. Rather, a claim for wrongful discharge generally exists only if the termination violates a legally protected right as set forth in a contract, statute, or public policy.
Courts in Virginia and the District of Columbia have carved out "narrow" exceptions to the at-will doctrine for claims of "wrongful termination" or "wrongful discharge" in violation of public policy. The highest courts of the respective jurisdictions have expressed the public policy exception to the at-will doctrine as follows:
Wrongful Discharge in the District of Columbia
Under the "Adams-Carl" line of cases, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals has recognized a "very narrow" public policy exception to the at-will doctrine. To establish a claim of wrongful discharge, a fired at-will employee must show that the employer's action contravened an "identifiable policy that has been officially declared in a statute or municipal regulation, or in the Constitution."
A close fit must exist between the identifiable policy and the conduct at issue in the wrongful termination. An employer may not, for example, fire an employee "when the sole reason for the discharge is the employee's refusal to violate the law, as expressed in a statute or municipal regulation."
Wrongful Termination in Virginia
The Virginia Supreme Court has recognized a "narrow exception" to the at-will doctrine for claims of wrongful termination based on one of these three grounds:
- The employer discharged the employee for exercising a right created by statute.
- The employer fired the employee for refusing to commit a crime.
- The employer violated a public policy explicitly expressed in a statute where the employee is clearly a member of the class of persons protected by the statute. (Note: A 1995 amendment to the Virginia Human Rights Act (VHRA) prevents common-law wrongful termination claims for violations of public policies expressed in the VHRA.)
Employees may challenge their at-will status on the basis of oral and/or written assurances of job security made by their employer, often in the form of employee policies or personnel manuals. For example, an employee may cite a handbook clause regarding just-cause discharge as evidence of a contractual relationship binding the employer. Many jurisdictions set a high standard for such claims, and are unwilling to overturn the at-will presumption on the basis of vague or indeterminate promises.
Employers in general can protect their right to discharge employees at will by incorporating a disclaimer on their application form and in their employee handbook stating that employment may be terminated at any time and without cause or notice.
If you need a lawyer for a wrongful termination case in D.C. or Virginia, please complete and submit the employment case review form.