Clients often call me claiming they have a wrongful termination case. Usually the conversation goes something like this:
Client – “My boss fired me for not showing up yesterday.”
Me – “Do you have a contract saying you can't be fired for that?"
“No – I don’t have a contract.”
“Then you are probably an at-will employee, which means they can fire you for just about anything.”
If you are an at-will employee, it means you can be fired at any time, for any reason that is not illegal. Even though this gives employers a lot of leeway, they occasionally go too far. For example, it's illegal for an employer to fire you for discriminatory reasons. Even if you are employed at will, you cannot be fired because of your race, religion, gender, or other protected characteristic.
In 2010, the Supreme Court of Missouri gave another protection to at-will employees: Employees cannot be fired in violation of public policy. This means that an employee may not be fired for refusing to violate the law or for reporting wrongdoing to government agencies or within the company.
In one of the cases the court decided, Keveneny v.Missouri Military Academy, a school teacher was told by his superiors that one of his students might come to classes with bruises, and that the teacher should not report the potential child abuse. This order directly conflicted with a state statute that requires teachers to report possible child abuse.
The teacher was fired that same day; the employer argued that the teacher was fired legitimately for being insubordinate. That’s right; the employer said we can fire him because he wouldn’t break the law for us. However, the Missouri Supreme Court disagreed, finding that an emloyee may sue for wrongful termination if he is fired for refusing to follow an employer's demand that he break the law. Although a number of other states have recognized legal claims for wrongful termination in violation of public policy, Missouri just caught up in 2010.