What Every Tennessee Employee Needs To Know About Tennessee Employment Law
The intent of this guide is to provide an overview of Tennessee employment laws, including what it means to be an at-will employee, to assist employees in determining whether they have grounds for filing a lawsuit based on wrongful termination in Tennessee.
At-Will EmploymentTennessee is an at-will employment state. This means that an employee can be fired for any reason - even an unjust or arbitrary reason - just as long as it is not for a reason prohibited by law (for example, race, color, sex, religion or national origin). Over the years, however, Tennessee courts have carved out some limited exceptions to Tennessee's at-will doctrine. For example, if the employer made any promises of continued employment to the employee, such promises could be interpreted as creating an implied contract with the employee which would be breached when the employer fired the employee. Promises of this nature can be made orally or in writing, and have even been found to exist when an employer's handbook contained language which suggested continued employment. Another exception to Tennessee's at-will doctrine is the public policy exception. This basically means that an employer is prohibited from terminating an employee for any reason that is against a well established public policy of the state. An example of this would be if the employee was fired for filing a worker's compensation claim or for asserting another federal right.
Title VII ProtectionsUnder Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, an employee cannot be fired because of his or her race, color, religion, sex or national origin. If the employee has reason to believe that he or she was fired for one of these discriminatory reasons, the employee must first contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to file a complaint. The EEOC will investigate the allegations of discrimination and, after competing the investigation, issue the employee a "Right to Sue" letter. This letter allows the employee to then file a lawsuit against an employer. This lawsuit must be filed within 90 days of receiving the Right to Sue notice.
Wrongful TerminationAn employee can bring a wrongful termination lawsuit against an employer if he or she had a contract and was terminated without just cause, or was an at-will employee who was terminated because of discrimination or in violation of an implied contract or state public policy. Depending upon the circumstances, damages available to wrongfully discharged employees may include back pay, reinstatement, front pay, punitive damages and attorneys' fees and costs.
Recent Changes To Tennessee Employment LawsJust last year, Governor Haslam signed into law certain changes to Tennessee's employment laws that favor employers and limit employees' remedies against employers for wrongful termination. Most significantly, the new laws essentially eliminate common law retaliatory discharge claims, prohibit employees from naming individuals such as supervisors or managers in wrongful discharge lawsuits and place a cap on the amount of damages available to employees in wrongful discharge lawsuits. This pro-employer stance has made it even more difficult for employees to assert wrongful termination claims. Because Tennessee's employment laws are complex and evolving, if you think you may have a wrongful discharge claim against your employer, you should consult an experienced employment law attorney to help you understand and protect your rights.