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Wrongful Termination and At-Will Employment in the District of Columbia and Virginia

As an employment lawyer, several times a week, I am asked whether an employer can fire an employee without a good reason. In the District of Columbia and Virginia, the answer is usually yes. That is because employment in D.C. and Virginia is “at-will” unless a contract or statute states otherwise, or unless a public policy exception exists. Employment “at-will” means that the employer or employee may terminate the employment relationship at any time, for any lawful reason, or for no reason at all.

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:

D.C. Wrongful Discharge Claims

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."

Virginia Wrongful Termination Claims

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:


1. The employer discharged the employee for exercising a right created by statute.

2. The employer fired the employee for refusing to commit a crime.

3. 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.)

This information is not intended to and should not be construed as legal advice for any specific employment action. If you have questions about the at-will doctrine or wrongful termination claims as applied to a specific employment situation, feel free to contact Lori J. Searcy, Searcy Business Litigation & Employment Law, LLC at 703-644-4122.

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* Searcy Business Litigation & Employment Law represents clients in the District of Columbia and Northern Virginia, including Arlington County, Fairfax County, Loudoun County, and Prince William County, the cities of Alexandria, Falls Church, and Fairfax. The firm also serves clients in the Virginia counties of Clarke, Culpeper, Fauquier, Frederick, Madison, Page, Rappahannock, Shenandoah, Spotsylvania, Stafford, and Warren, as well as the cities of Fredericksburg and Winchester, Virginia and more.

All legal information provided on this website is general and should not be used or relied on as legal advice as legal advice cannot be given without full
consideration of all relevant information relating to a specific situation.

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