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The Public Policy Exception to At-Will Employment

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By Joseph G. Ballstaedt

 In Idaho, almost every employee is an at-will employee, which means he has no contract with his employer establishing how long the employment relationship will last or limiting why he can be fired. At-will employees can be fired for almost any reason and, conversely, can quit for any reason. Such an arrangement allows equal freedom to both the employer and the employee.

There is a general exception, however, to an employer’s rights under an at-will employment relationship: an employer cannot fire an employee when motivated by a reason that is against public policy. See MacNeil v. Minidoka Mem’l Hosp., 108 Idaho 588, 589, 701 P.2d 208, 209 (1985). All but a few states recognize this exception. Idaho courts have explained that public policy is made of principles that restrict parties’ freedom to contract and privately deal. Such restrictions are for the good of the community; whatever contravenes good morals or any established interests of society is against public policy. See Jackson v. Minidoka Irrigation Dist., 98 Idaho 330, 333, 563 P.2d 54, 57 (1977).

In Idaho, generally only public policies based case law or a statute trigger the public policy exception. Bollinger v. Fall River Rural Elec. Coop., Inc., 152 Idaho 632, 640, 272 P.3d 1263, 1271 (2012). Moreover, Idaho divides the public policy exception into three protected activities: 1) refusing to commit unlawful acts, 2) performing important public obligations, or 3) exercising certain legal rights or privileges. Idaho courts have identified several activities that fall into these categories. For example, an employer cannot take adverse action against an employee for refusing to commit perjury (an unlawful act), serving on jury duty (a public obligation), filing a worker’s compensation claim (a legal right or privilege), or refusing to date a supervisor (another legal right or privilege). See Anderson v. Farm Bureau Mut. Ins. Co., 112 Idaho 461, 469, 732 P.2d 699, 707 (Ct. App. 1987).

Regarding the third category of the public policy exception, not every legal right or privilege is protected. Let’s suppose, for instance, that an employer wants to remain politically neutral, so it prohibits employees from exercising their right to run for political office and fires any who do. Idaho courts have stated employers can do so because not all activities and interests that benefit the community (such as running for office) are protected under the public policy exception. See McKay v. Ireland Bank, 138 Idaho 185, 190, 59 P.3d 990, 995 (Ct. App. 2002). Similarly, employers can fire employees who exercise their constitutional right to free speech. See Edmondson v. Shearer Lumber Prods., 139 Idaho 172, 178, 75 P.3d 733, 739 (2003).

If an employee believes he was fired for engaging in a protected activity under the public policy exception, he has the burden of proving he was fired for engaging in this activity and not for some other valid reason. Bollinger, 152 Idaho at 640, 272 P.3d at 1271.

 

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