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United States - Substantive requirements for dismissals

Substantive requirements for dismissals (justified and prohibited grounds) - United States - 2017    

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Obligation to provide reasons to the employee: No

Valid grounds (justified dismissal): none
  • The United States has an "at will" employment system which allows an employer to terminate an employee at any time and for any reason, or for no reason at all.
    However, it would be inaccurate to conclude that employers in the United States have complete freedom in the discharge of employees; workers are protected from arbitrary termination of employment, through various ways, as follows:
    1) Collective agreements: Where employees are represented by a union, their collective-bargaining agreement nearly always contains a provision that requires 'just cause' for termination. Such provisions are enforceable through the grievance and arbitration process set forth in nearly all collective-bargaining agreements. The scope of such protection is limited by the low rate of union representation (12.3 % of the American workforce unionized as of 2009 in both public and private sectors in 2009, 7.2 % in the private sector - See: (last visited June 16, 2010).
    2) Statutory protection: Numerous federal laws prohibit discrimination in employment, and those laws operate to prohibit termination of employment based on certain proscribed reasons (see below prohibited grounds)
    3) Judicial protection: Another protection against employment at-will comes from case law, in which there are three major exceptions namely a) public policy exception, b) the implied contract exception and c) the implied Covenant of good faith and fair dealing.
    a) the most widely accepted exception, recognized by forty-three states, is the public policy exception. The public policy exception under case law is available largely to protect employees from dismissal in those situations where they refuse to commit an illegal or unethical act requested by the employer or where they choose to exercise a statutory right, for example rights under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, 1970, or the Fair Labour Standards Act, 1938 (covering minimum wage and overtime). The recognition and scope of application of this exception varies from state to state.
    b) the notion of a breach of an implied contract of employment. An implied contract can come from an oral or written representation, or from an employer's past practice, leading to an employee's legitimate expectation that his or her employment will not be terminated without just cause. This exception is recognized in 38 of the 50 States
    c) Basic contractual principles have also given rise to recognition of an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing in labour and employment law, leading to an assumption that dismissals should be fair and for just cause. This theory holds that a duty of good faith and fair dealing is owed in the performance and enforcement of all contracts. As of 2000, only 11 states recognized the above exception.
    (On those exceptions see: Muhl, Charles J., "The employment-at-will doctrine: three major exceptions" in Monthly Labour Review. 2001 Vol. 24, No. 1, pp. 3-11 - Available at:

Prohibited grounds: pregnancy; maternity leave; filing a complaint against the employer; race; sex; sexual orientation; religion; age; trade union membership and activities; disabilities; parental leave; whistle blowing; gender identity; adoption leave; raising occupational health and security concerns; performing jury service; genetic information
  • Termination is unlawful if it is based on any of the following reasons:
    * family leave (including birth/adoption of a child or serious illness of employee, or a spouse, child, or parent): The Family and Medical Leave Act provides for 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave but limited to employers with 50 or more employees and to employees who have worked at least 1, 250 hours for the employer during the preceding 12-month period) (FMLA [sec. 102](a)(1)], 29 U.S.C. sec. 2612(a)(1) and [sec. 104 (1)(a)] 29 U.S.C. sec. 2614(a)(1)). The law also prohibits retaliation against employees who attempt to exercise their rights under the law ([sec. 102(1)(b)], 29 U.S.C. sec. 2615(a)(2)). However, the employer can still terminate employment while the employee is on leave for reasons not connected with the fact that the employee took family leave (i.e restructuring).

    * union activity (or protected concerted activity): National Labour Relations Act (NLRA) [sec. 158(a)(3)] 29 U.S.C. sec. 158(a)(3).

    * race, color, religion, national origin, or sex (including pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions): Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) (CRA) [secs. 703 and 701(k)], 42 U.S.C. sec. 2000e-2. and 2000e(k).

    * disability: Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) [sec. 102(a)] 42 U.S.C sec. 12112(a).

    * age: Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), [sec. 4], 29 U.S.C sec. 623(a) (1).

    * raising health and safety concerns: The Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1970 (OSHA), has a provision that protects employees who report unsafe working conditions from termination by their employer: [sec. 11(c)(1)] 29 U.S.C sec. 660(c)(1).

    * genetic information: Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) [sec. 202], 42 U.S.C sec. 2000ff.

    * corporate whistle blowing: Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (SOX) protects an employee of any publicly traded company against retaliation from discharge as a result of reporting information or assisting in an investigation related to possible fraud by the employer where the employee has a reasonable belief that the employer has engaged in fraud or related misconduct: [sec. 806], 18 U.S.C sec. 1514A (a).

    * jury service: The Jury System Improvements Act of 1978 (JSIA), 28 U.S.C sec. 1875, prohibits an employer from discharging any permanent employee by reason of the employee's jury service or scheduled attendance in connection with such service in any court of the United States.

    * filing complaint against the employer: almost all of the discrimination statutes mentioned above have provisions prohibiting termination based on an employee's filing of or participation in a discrimination complaint proceeding. See NLRA [sec.8(a)(4)], 29 U.S.C sec. 158(a)(4); Title VII CRA [sec. 704], 42 U.S.C sec. 2000e-3; ADA [sec. 503(a)], 42 U.S.C sec. 12203(a); ADEA [sec. 4(d)], 29 U.S.C sec. 623(d). OSHA also has such a provision, discussed above, as does SOX, and the FMLA, also discussed above.

    *New in 2014: Sexual orientation and gender identity- in the Executive Order 13672 of July 21, 2014

Workers enjoying special protection: no protected groups