In addition to the statutory protections we have mentioned in previous posts, there are also common-law or court-created exceptions to the at-will employment rule. For example, states may recognize certain exceptions to the rule based in public policy, such as termination based on refusal to commit a prohibited act, engaging in acts that are in the public interest, exercising statutory rights or reporting a violation.
Such exceptions may have some crossover with statutory protections, but it is important to be aware that such protections may exist. Minnesota prohibits employers from terminating an employee for refusing to perform actions which the employee objectively believes may violate state or federal law. The benefit from this protection, though, the employee must inform the employer that the order is being refused because of the belief that it is illegal.
Implied contracts and implied covenants of good faith and fair dealing may also protect an employee from at-will termination. An implied contract may be found in oral or written assurances relating to employment, though it is usually difficult to argue for an implied contract unless the language is very clearly promising job protection. Even more difficult is to prove an implied covenant to deal fairly with an employee with respect to termination, but courts have recognized the possibility. In addition to these possibilities, tort-based claims and equitable remedies may serve as protections against at-will employment in some cases.
Employees who feel they have been unfairly terminated from their position should always work with an experienced local attorney to ensure they understand the law, their legal options, and how to build the best possible case.