Wrongful termination entails a breach of existing state or federal laws when firing a worker. This can include terminating an employee due to religious beliefs, skin color, ethnicity, nation of origin, etc. Wrongful termination also pertains to those instances when an employer breaches any contractual obligations when firing a worker. Knowledge of wrongful termination laws is essential for employers to avoid subsequent legal action from fired employees. Even in those cases where an at-will employment relationship exists, employers must be sure they are well within prevailing regulations when letting go a worker.
At-will Employment in Hawaii
Many states, including Hawaii, maintain an at-will relationship between employers and employees. This means that in many cases employers can terminate workers at any time for any reason and without the need for prior notice. Exceptions to at-will employment regulations do exist however, and violations of these exceptions can incur harsh legal penalties for employers.
Wrongful Termination in Hawaii
Failure to honor those exceptions to at-will employment statutes can result in a claim of wrongful termination against employers. There can be very serious legal consequences for employers charged with wrongful termination, including being obligated to cover the wrongfully terminated employee’s legal fees and payment of punitive damages. Employers may also be ordered to provide back and front wages, or even reinstate the fired worker in some cases. Employers in Hawaii should be aware of all relevant exemptions to at-will employment laws to prevent wrongful terminations from occurring.
Breach of Contract: Breach of contract is one exception to at-will employment laws. In the event that there exists a contract between employer and worker that explicitly states when firing is permissible, such as declining work performance, these contractual stipulations override any existing at-will employment laws. In Hawaii, employers entering into contracts with their employees must inform the worker of the reason for termination. Breach of contract laws can apply to both written and oral contracts, as well as collective bargaining agreements.
Discrimination: There are numerous state and federal laws outlining what constitutes discrimination in the workplace when it comes to firing workers. According to state laws, employers are not permitted to terminate employment for the following reasons: sex or sexual orientation (including gender identity), credit history, marital or civil union status, ancestry, race and/or color, arrest record, status as a victim of domestic or sexual violence, age, religious beliefs and disability. Federal discrimination includes many of these same protections. Most employers in Hawaii are covered under discrimination statutes, with the exception of those employees working for the federal government. A majority of wrongful termination cases involve some aspect of discrimination.
Retaliation: Employers are also prohibited from firing workers in retaliation for those activities deemed necessary or legally appropriate. For instance, should an employee file a claim regarding the failure to receive overtime pay or elect to join a union, employers are not permitted to terminate employment based on these protected activities. Employees are also protected from being fired due to notifying the authorities about violations occurring at their place of work. These activities are covered under what is known as whistleblower laws. For private sector workers, whistleblower laws are often more limited than those covering the public sector. Hawaii utilizes general whistleblower protections covering things such as violations of agreed-upon contracts and disclosure of illegal activities undertaken by the employer.
Public Policy: When it comes to at-will employment, public policy exceptions are exceedingly common. These regulations stipulate that employers are not permitted to dismiss a worker for performing certain protected activities, such as reporting employer violations, performing a duty in the public interest, such as agreeing to jury duty, or exercising what is deemed a right under the law. Hawaiian courts determine matters of public policy by looking at existing regulations and statutes, as well as any related constitutional provisions.
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