Federal and state laws create guidelines for employers about how and when they can legally terminate employees. Although these give both sides considerable freedom regarding how they define their employment relationship, there are circumstances where an employer is not free to let the employee go. For example, the federal Fair Labor Standards Act prohibits employers from dismissing an employee for filing a complaint against the company in good faith. Learning about the exceptions to the relevant laws can prevent a company from being sued for wrongful termination.
At-will Employment in Mississippi
Mississippi has at-will employment laws, and these give employers the right to dismiss an employee for any reason or no reason, as long as it is not an illegal reason. There are both federal and state laws that are very specific about what constitutes wrongful termination, though, and the Mississippi Supreme Court has made decisions that define issues even further. An employee’s job may be protected in several ways.
Wrongful Termination in Mississippi
Compared to some states, Mississippi does not have many laws defining wrongful termination. For example, the state does not have its own anti-discrimination laws, so only federal law applies in these situations. Mississippi does protect employees from being discharged for exercising their right to vote, to serve on a jury, or to train and serve in the military. However, it is not wrongful termination to dismiss an employee for refusing to take a drug test.
Breach of Contract: If there are company policies and procedures defining the circumstances under which an employee may be dismissed, these may constitute an implied employment contract. Because this has the potential to lead to a wrongful termination suit, employers should include a disclaimer that gives them the right to change policies at will. Otherwise, they may be restricted to the termination policy they have provided.
A collective bargaining agreement typically outlines the process for dismissing an employee, and a company is bound to follow the terms of this agreement. If a person has been hired for a specified period of time or there is a written contract defining when termination is legal, the employer is not free to fire at will. However, an employer can dismiss an employee if there is evidence of just cause, such as misconduct.
Discrimination: Federal anti-discrimination laws define protected characteristics, describe the companies that are affected by the regulations, and provide government agencies to accept complaints of violations and enforce the laws.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employer actions such as termination based on discrimination. Employees cannot be fired because of their national origin, race, color, religion or sex, and the Americans with Disabilities Act prevents discrimination based on mental and physical handicaps. However, businesses with fewer than 15 employees are not bound by these laws. Employers with fewer than 20 employees cannot discriminate against employees for their age if they are 40 years old or older.
Retaliation: Federal law protects employees from punitive discharge when they have exercised their rights in the workplace, such as filing a workers’ compensation claim. Employees should also be free to report illegal activity, such as violations of the wage and hour laws or safety regulations. This is known as whistleblowing, and employers cannot terminate a worker who engages in this type of activity in good faith. There are federally enforced laws to this effect, such as the Whistleblower Protection Act, as well as a Mississippi public policy exception.
Public Policy: According to the Mississippi Supreme Court, an employer cannot fire an employee for reporting an activity that violates public policy. Employees are also protected from termination if the employer requires them to perform an illegal action as a condition of employment and they refuse. A wrongful discharge in this type of circumstance allows the employee to sue the company for damages, including punitive damages.
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