employee packing up desk after being fired

Can My Employer Terminate Me?

Almost all private sector employees in North Carolina are “at will” employees. That means that an employee is hired for an indefinite period of time and may be terminated for any reason or no reason at all, with or without notice, as long as they are not terminated for an illegal reason that is prohibited by federal or state laws.

Does Having a Contract Protect Me?

Some employees, usually medical or other professionals, actually have employment contracts, verbal or written, for a definite term of employment, or providing that employment can only be terminated “for cause.” However, even in some written employment contracts, there are provisions that the contract may be terminated “at will.”

North Carolina law has very limited exceptions to employment “at will” created by the courts and the legislature. The North Carolina courts have recognized that an employee cannot be terminated in violation of public policy. For example, an employee cannot be fired for refusing to violate the law at their employer’s request, for engaging in legally protected activity, or for opposing their employer’s activity that is illegal or contrary to public policy. The North Carolina Court of Appeals has set forth a rule that the public policy cannot be based on federal law, but must be set forth in North Carolina’s constitution, statutes, or regulations.

There are some other North Carolina laws which may protect an employee who is being fired depending on the circumstances. For example, an employee cannot be terminated for being absent due to jury service or for being subpoenaed as a witness for court proceedings. The North Carolina Retaliatory Employment Discrimination Act (REDA) prohibits discrimination or retaliation against an employee who engages in “protected activities” with regard to a wide range of areas, including workers’ compensation claims, wage and hour issues, workplace safety rights, mine safety and health, sickle cell and hemoglobin C carriers, genetic testing, National Guard service, juvenile justice system, domestic violence, pesticide exposure, and drug paraphernalia. North Carolina also has a Smokers Rights Act that is not limited to tobacco use and makes it illegal to terminate an employee for “the lawful use of lawful products during nonworking hours.”

Are There Special Protections for State Employees?

Employees of the State of North Carolina have protection from termination if they “blow the whistle” on violations of law, fraud, misappropriation, danger, or gross mismanagement, waste, or abuse of authority in or relating to any state programs and operations.

Employees of state and local governments and public school teachers have a broad range of additional protections relating to being terminated, which may include being terminated only for “just cause,” receiving notice of the reasons for the termination, and the right to a grievance, hearing, or other review if the employee feels he/she should not have been terminated.

What if I Have Been Discriminated Against?

Employees working in North Carolina also have rights under federal laws that protect employees from discrimination on the basis of such factors as sex, race, color, national origin, religion, disability, age, military service, use of employee or retirement benefits, and taking leave as a result of the serious health condition of an employee or their family members and/or as a result of the birth or the adoption of a child.

These laws do not apply to all employees and employers and there are many exceptions and exemptions. Below is a sample of federal laws which give employees job protection:

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), which prohibits employers with 15 or more employees from discrimination because of race, color, sex, religion, or national origin

Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), which prohibits employers with 20 or more employees from discrimination because of age

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Americans with Disabilities Amendment Act (ADAA), which prohibits employers with 15 or more employees from discrimination because of disability

Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which requires employers with 50 or more employees to provide unpaid leave to qualified employees for qualified purposes

Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which prohibits employers from retaliation for exercising specified rights related to minimum wage and overtime protections

The Uniform Services Employment and Re-employment Rights Act (USERRA), which prohibits dismissal on the basis of an employee’s military obligations

42 U.S.C. § 1981, which prohibits race discrimination in making of contracts, including employment

42 U.S.C. § 1983, which prohibits violation of civil rights by persons acting under color of law

Employees have a limited time after their termination to take action if they feel their rights have been violated. For example, employees must file REDA complaints with the North Carolina Department of Labor within 180 days of their termination or they will loose their REDA claims. Thus, employees should not delay in seeking legal advice. An experienced employment law attorney at Grimes Teich Anderson can answer your questions and help determine if you have a case.

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