March 1, 2001
By: Lynn Marx, Research Attorney
You asked for background information about at-will employment in Connecticut and other states. You also asked whether any state has adopted an alternative approach.
In almost all states, including Connecticut, private-sector employers and employees generally have the right to terminate employment “at-will,” that is, whenever either party wishes, without giving a reason. But, in certain states, employers do not have the right to terminate employees “at will” if the termination violates public policy, an implied employment contract, or an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing.
Connecticut courts recognize two of these exceptions, public policy and implied employment contract. Montana adopted an alternative approach several years ago. Under Montana law, employers may not terminate an employee unless they have “good cause.” The law has a few exceptions.
Employees without explicit contract or statutory protection have long worked under the common law rule that their employment was terminable “at-will”. “At-will employment” means that an employer may discharge an employee without restriction, that is, for any reason or no reason, without incurring any liability to the employee. There are, however, three major exceptions to the employment-at-will doctrine.
The most widespread exception prevents terminations for reasons that violate a state's public policy. Under the public-policy exception, an employee is wrongfully discharged when the termination is against an explicit, well-established public policy of the state. The public-policy exception is recognized in 43 of the 50 states.
Another widely recognized exception prohibits terminations after an implied contract for employment has been established. Such a contract can be created through employer representations of continued employment in the form of either oral assurances or expectations created by employer handbooks, policies, or other written assurances. This exception is recognized in 38 of the 50 states.
A minority of states have read an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing into the employment relationship. The exception for a covenant of good faith and fair dealing represents the most significant departure from the traditional employment-at-will doctrine. The good–faith covenant has been interpreted in different ways, from meaning that terminations must be for cause to meaning that termination cannot be made in bad-faith or with malice. Eleven states recognize this exception.
CONNECTICUT AT-WILL EMPLOYMENT
Connecticut recognizes two of the three major exceptions, the public policy and implied contract exceptions.
Connecticut permits a cause of action for wrongful termination of an at- will employee where the discharge “contravenes a clear mandate of public policy” (Sheets v. Teddy's Frosted Foods, Inc., 179 Conn. 471, 474 (1980)). Public policy may be found in constitutional or statutory provisions or in judicially conceived notions. The statutory provisions include prohibitions against discharging an employee for filing a claim for unemployment or workers' compensation, filing a wage enforcement claim, and exercising federal or state constitutional rights of religious freedom, free speech, or assembly. The public policy exception is quite limited and has been recognized only in situations where the employer's action violates some law.
Connecticut also permits a cause of action for wrongful termination based on an implied employment contract. In order to prevail on such a claim, an employee must prove that the employer agreed, either by words, action, or conduct, to not terminate the employee without just cause (D'Ulisse-Cupo v. Board of Directors of Notre Dame High School, 202 Conn. 206, 212 n.2 (1987)).
As an alternative to at-will employment, Connecticut could adopt a wrongful discharge statute. The state of Montana adopted a wrongful discharge statute in 1987. Under the Wrongful Discharge From Employment Act (WDFEA), outside of a probationary period of employment, an employer may not discharge an employee without good cause (MCA 39-2-904(2)). “Good cause” means reasonable job-related grounds for dismissal based on a failure to satisfactorily perform job duties, disruption of the employer's operation, or other legitimate business reason. WDFEA does not apply to a discharge that is subject to state or federal statutes that provide procedures or remedies for contesting the dispute; to the discharge of an employee subject to a written contract for a specified term; or to the discharge of an employee covered by a written collective bargaining agreement.
In 1991, the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws drafted a Uniform Employment Termination Act to serve as a model for state wrongful discharge laws. No state, however, adopted the draft law.