Limits to a Kentucky employer’s power to terminate an employee

In most Kentucky jobs, employers can let employees go for any reason – economic downturn, misbehavior, shoddy work, lateness or for no reason at all. This is normally legal and within the employer’s discretion under the at-will employment doctrine. In essence, the employee is hired at the employer’s will and the employer also has the power to terminate the employee without cause.

The at-will employment doctrine applies to most employer-employee relationships, but there are two broad exceptions: limits imposed by private contract or restrictions imposed by law. When an employer discharges someone in violation of a valid agreement or a federal, state or local employment law, the wrongful discharge opens the employer to legal liability for the employee’s losses.

Wrongful termination based on breach of contract

Examples of employment agreements that may limit the at-will doctrine:

  • Collective bargaining agreement negotiated between an employer and its unionized employees
  • Private, written employment agreement – especially for an executive, professional, managerial or another elite employee – that requires cause (generally or for specific behavior) for dismissal or includes a set termination date
  • Implied employment agreement that may arise based on an employer’s verbal representations or behavior, or on discharge policies in an employment manual

Wrongful discharge in violation of law

There are limits on employee discharge based on statutes and regulations as well as on case law (judge-made law through binding judicial opinions). Some of these legal restrictions include:

  • Anti-discrimination laws forbidding termination (or other negative employment action) based on protected characteristics in federal law like religion, age, disability, sex, pregnancy, race, color, national origin and genetic information; Kentucky law also covers most of these characteristics; sexual orientation and gender identity may be protected characteristics under local laws; the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) protects these characteristics as part of gender or sex, but the current administration opposes this
  • When an employee feels forced to quit because of an illegal hostile work environment based on any of these protected characteristics or because of a request for a sexual favor in exchange for a promotion or other job perk, this is a form of wrongful termination called constructive discharge
  • Wrongful discharge includes firing an employee in unlawful retaliation for exercising certain legal rights such as filing for workers’ compensation; reporting illegal or dangerous conditions in the workplace; reporting or cooperating in investigation or prosecution of matters related to discrimination or harassment; taking lawful family or medical leave under federal or Kentucky leave laws; or requesting reasonable workplace accommodation for a disability or for religious reasons

This only introduces a complex topic. For example, particular federal or Kentucky laws only apply to employers of a certain size or type. Any Kentucky employer or employee with questions about wrongful discharge should speak with an experienced lawyer for guidance and representation.

An article in The National Law Review provides a meaningful introduction to this topic for Kentucky employers and employees.


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