Question: I just got fired for no reason. Can an employer do that?
Answer: Florida continues to be governed by the common law doctrine of employment at will. Unless you have a contract for a definite term of employment or which limits reasons for termination, your employment is terminable at will by your employer.
Some states have adopted exceptions to the employment at will doctrine, usually by court decision. In those states, the courts have determined the concept needs review under modern circumstances adopting some or all of three major exceptions public policy, implied contract and covenant of good faith and fair dealing. So far, Florida courts have refused invitation to adopt one or more of those exceptions.
Florida courts have consistently indicated any exceptions to the employment at will doctrine should be adopted by the legislature. Florida courts consistently hold that if there is no definite term of employment, it is at will. In one case, a former employee claimed her employer conned her into quitting a full-time job by promising her she would have a job for life, or at least until she reached 65 years of age. The court ruled an oral contract for life-time employment is terminable at will because there was no contract expressly providing a definite term for the employment.
Florida’s legislature has accepted the judicial invitation to limit this doctrine in a number of circumstances. One statute prohibits termination of employment because of an individual’s race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, handicap or mental status. The legislature has also found compelling public policy bases for exceptions to the employment at will doctrine and the United State Congress has also adopted laws which limit the employer’s unfettered discretion to terminate.
Examples of these limitations in Florida include:
1. A criminal statute prohibiting discharge of an employee for trading or dealing with any particular merchant (the statute only provides for criminal prosecution and does not create a civil cause of action).
2. Prohibition of termination for filing a worker’s compensation claim.
3. Prohibition of termination for termination of a “whistle blower” (one who reports illegal activity).
4. Prohibition against termination for filing a claim for failure to pay wages or overtime.
5. Termination based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, handicap or mental status.
6. Termination for exercising any federally protected rights such as unionization, family or medical leave, or filing a sexual harassment complaint.
7. And, one relatively unique to Florida, termination of an employee with a concealed weapons permit for keeping a gun in his car in the parking lot.
In addition to the foregoing, at least one Florida court has agreed damages could be awarded to an employee at will due to circumstances of termination. In the case of Crawford v. David Shapiro & Co, P.A., Crawford was a chartered accountant working for a large accounting firm in London. Shapiro offered to employ Crawford as an accountant in Miami. Crawford made application for a work permit with the U.S. Department of Labor and Shapiro actively assisted with the application. Shapiro referred Crawford to an immigration attorney and assisted with INS documents. Ultimately, Shapiro told Crawford there was no job.
Crawford sued, and the court ruled that under the circumstances, Crawford was entitled to reasonable notice of Shapiro’s change of heart. It awarded Crawford expenses of travel for his family, moving and storage expenses for household goods, car rental fees, hotel expenses and restaurant charges incurred after arrival in Miami and attorney’s fees for the immigration lawyer, which would not have been incurred had Shapiro given reasonable notice. But, because the employment was at will, the court refused to award lost wages.
If you are negotiating an employment contract, you would be well advised to retain counsel. A written contract will certainly provide protection. If you find yourself on the wrong end of a termination decision, it might also be prudent to discuss your situation with an experienced attorney. New statutes are adopted from time to time and court decisions may change the law. Only an experienced attorney will be able to advise you with respect to your situation
William G. Morris is an attorney with offices at 247 North Collier Boulevard on Marco Island, Florida. His practice covers a broad range of subjects, including civil litigation, real estate, business and corporate law, estate planning and probate, domestic relations and contracts. He writes this column periodically with respect to legal matters that frequently affect non-lawyers. The information contained in this column is not intended as legal advice and, of necessity, is generalized. For questions about specific circumstances, the reader should consult a qualified attorney.