The majority of employees in the State of New Hampshire can be classified as being at-will employees. An at-will employee is an employee who does not have an employment contract with the employer. As such, their employment status is precarious in that an employer can terminate an at-will employee at any time for almost any reason.
A wrongfully terminated at-will employee does have the ability to sue an employer if they can demonstrate the discharge was “motivated by bad faith, retaliation, or malice” and “the plaintiff was discharged for performing an act that public policy would encourage or refusing to do something that public policy would condemn.” In the recent case of Leeds v. BAE Systems (decided November 5, 2013), a trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s wrongful termination claim after he was fired for engaging in an altercation on company property. The plaintiff claimed that he was merely defending himself from an irate driver and as such should not have been.
In upholding the dismissal of the plaintiff’s wrongful termination case, the Supreme Court wrote that while the plaintiff may have been justified in striking the other driver because he believed the cell phone the driver was carrying was a weapon, the remainder of his conduct during the encounter, which included abusive and threatening language and actions, was not conduct that public policy would support.
It is important to note that Mr. Leeds’ case was dismissed pretrial in that a jury was not allowed to consider his or his employer’s credibility. The trial court ruled that as a matter of law Mr. Leeds’ case could not succeed. The Leeds’ case demonstrates the difficulty that an at-will employee will face in a common law wrongful discharge action. An employee who believes that he or she has been wrongfully terminated by an employer should consult with an attorney who is familiar with not only this common law claim, but with other potential claims that could be brought under various federal and state statutes.
Andrew J. Piela is a Director at Hamblett & Kerrigan, P.A. Mr. Piela concentrates his practice in civil litigation, family law, probate and land use litigation. You can reach Attorney Piela by e-mail at [email protected].