Wrongful termination laws dictate what is and is not considered lawful in terms of terminating employee relationships. On the flip side, they also give employees who feel they have been wrongfully terminated guidelines as to how to pursue legal action against the employers they feel fired them unjustly. At the heart of most of today’s wrongful termination laws is the doctrine of at-will employment.
At-will Employment in Arizona
The majority of workers in Arizona’s private sector are considered “at-will employees,” meaning the employee and employer relationship is not bound by any existing employment contract agreement and that either the employer or the employee may terminate employment at any time and for any reason. Though at-will employment states allow employers to terminate workers essentially without cause, there are a number of important exceptions Arizona business owners must know and understand.
Wrongful Termination in Arizona
Several exceptions to the at-will employment notion exist in the state of Arizona, primarily to ensure employers do not take advantage of certain types of employees. Arizona recognizes three main exceptions to the at-will employment notion. First, any existing contract (for example, an oral, written or implied contract) negates the at-will employee/employer relationship. Second, Arizona’s employers may not lawfully terminate workers for discriminatory reasons or on the basis of a protected right. Third, Arizona’s employers cannot terminate someone who files a complaint about them or their business, or who otherwise engages in what are considered “whistleblowing” practices. It is imperative that Arizona’s business owners familiarize themselves with these exceptions to avoid potential wrongful termination lawsuits from employees.
Breach of Contract: The state of Arizona recognizes three types of employment contracts: oral contracts, written contracts and “implied” contracts. Implied contracts are those that may not be actual, signed employment contracts but rather are any promises or guarantees given to employees by their employer about terms of employment. For example, if an employment handbook states that all employees will be given a 60-day probationary period and then an employee is terminated after only 30 days, he or she may decide to sue for wrongful termination. All three of these types of contracts negate the traditional “at-will” relationship. It is also important to note that Arizona’s breach of contract laws also apply to collective bargaining contracts in unions.
Discrimination: Arizona’s employees are protected against discriminatory practices in the workplace at both the state and federal level. Federally, employers with 15 or more workers may not terminate on the grounds of race, color, country of origin, pregnancy status, sex, religious affiliation, genetics or disability. Employers with four or more employees may not terminate relationships based on citizenship status, while those with 20 or more workers may not discriminate on the basis of age. Under Arizona law, state employers also may not discriminate against employees due to HIV/AIDS status. Arizona’s discrimination laws apply to businesses in the state that employ 15 or more individuals. Because most of today’s wrongful termination cases involve allegations of discriminatory practices, it is particularly important that Arizona’s employers come to fully grasp state discrimination laws.
Retaliation: Arizona’s employers are prohibited by law from firing employees who engage in whistleblowing behaviors or for other reasons that may be considered retaliatory in a court of law. For example, they cannot terminate employees who make reports about unfair or unsafe working conditions, or those who file sexual harassment claims against the employer.
Public Policy: Arizona is among many states that support a public policy exception to the doctrine of at-will employment. Essentially, this means Arizona’s employers cannot fire workers for reasons society would consider unlawful. For example, employees can’t be fired for refusing to perjure themselves or commit crimes their employer, because both actions are against the law and doing so would therefore violate existing public policies.
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