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Wrongful Termination and At-Will Employment: Attempting Clarification Once and For All

Posted by attorney Randy Enochs

One of the most common calls I get to my office from potential clients are inquiries and claims that they have been "wrongfully terminated." Most of the time when people use that term to describe their separation from employment they mean that their termination was unfair. It is at that point that I attempt to explain what "wrongful termination" means in the employment law context. I start out by explaining that in Wisconsin employees are, by default, at-will employees and can be terminated for good cause, or bad cause, or no cause at all, and that is because employees are equally free to quit, strike, or otherwise cease work at-will. However, there are exceptions to the at-will employment doctrine, one of which being wrongful termination. Wrongful termination, in a nutshell, means that one has a cause of action if they are terminated for fulfilling, or refusing to violate, a fundamental, well-defined public policy or an affirmative legal obligation established by existing law. Bammert v. Don's Super Valu, 2002 WI 85 (Wis. 2002). So, for example, it would be a wrongful termination if you work at an auto dealer and you are terminated for refusing to falsify data or documents related to a car for sale which, if falsified, would lead to a violation of State statute or code. I often have to emphasize that this exception to the at-will doctrine is a narrow one, meaning that courts are not apt to find that an employee has been "wrongfully terminated." It is often an uphill battle to identify a clear and well-defined public policy that would trigger this exception.

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