Wrongful Termination under Maryland Law

In general, Maryland is a strongly “at-will state” when it comes to employment.  Unless one of the three exceptions listed below applies, either the worker or the employer may end the employment relationship at any time, under any circumstances – no notice, no severance, no due process, no exit interview, no opportunity to clear out one’s locker first, although an employer cannot simply steal an employees’ goods and must allow a reasonable opportunity to recover personal items at some point.  In plain English, workers cannot sue the job or the job sue the worker merely for terminating the relationship, whether it’s the worker quitting the jon or the job firing the worker.

Three major exceptions exist in Maryland.  The first is when a contract modifies the general rule.  Relatively few employees have an individual contract and many of those contract re-affirm the general at-will rule.  Some employees have a contractual right to notice, due process, severance or limitations on the grounds for firing.  Similarly employers can, in rare circumstances, sue employees for recoupment of educational benefits or similar costs for a worker who quits early as defined under a contract.  More common, though still uncommon in 2011, is a union collective bargaining agreement which may entitle the worker – sometimes even if not a union member – to some due process hearing and a showing of at least minimal cause before a firing can occur.  In general, if you have a contract protecting you as a worker, you know it.

The second category is when a non-discrimination statute or ordinance specifically prohibits the firing of a worker.  Most well known are the protected statuses itemized in the 1964 Civil Rights Act – race, gender, religion and many others.  Other federal statutes prohibit discrimination against the disabled, discrimination on the basis of age and other statuses.  In Maryland, it is illegal to fire a worker on the basis of sexual orientation; this represents a relatively recent change in state law.

The third category is the category of “wrongful termination” as confirmed in Adler v. American Standard, 291 Md. 31 (1981), a case sent to the Maryland Court of Appeals by the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland for certification of a Maryland legal question asked by the federal court.  In that case, the Court of Appeals affirmed that Maryland did recognize a legal claim for “abusive discharge” when the motivation of the discharge by the employer contravened some clear mandate of public policy.  A “clear mandate of public policy” is difficult to define, but a number of examples come to mind:

  • Firing a worker for reporting the employer to lawful authorities (tax/INS/safety and health/etc.)
  • Firing a worker for opposing illegal practices/refusing to participate
  • Firing a worker for objecting to being subjected to illegal practices (wage violations, etc.)
  • Firing a worker for engaging in lawful union-organizing activity
  • Firing a worker for insisting on time to go vote on election day – a protected right in Maryland which the employer must allow either before the workday, after the end of the workday or with pay for a two-hour window during work while the polls are open
  • Firing a worker for filing a worker’s compensation claim.
  • Firing a worker in contravention of anti-discrimination laws – even if the employer isn’t large enough to be covered by all such laws

The last example – using the wrongful termination doctrine to buttress imperfect or limited-scope anti-discrimination laws – arose in the Maryland Court of Appeals in Molesworth v. Brandon, 341 Md. 621 (1996). In that case, a veterinarian who claimed gender discrimination sued an employer who was too small to have been covered explicitly under Maryland’s Fair Employment Practices Act. Notwithstanding the provision in that statute that only employers with 15 or more employees, that act declared it to be the public policy of Maryland to assure ALL persons of equal opportunity in employment (and other matters) regardless of sex (or other listed criteria), and to prohibit discrimination by ANY employer. That clear policy statement was sufficient to allow the Court of Appeals to affirm the validity of a wrongful termination lawsuit against an employer who was too small to have been covered under the explicit enforcement focus of that statute.  The “Major Maryland Cases” series of this blog will cover both Adler and Molesworth in the near future in greater detail.

Most firings are not legally “wrongful” because most terminations don’t violate any specific mandate of public policy.   But when management is motivated wrongfully against what Maryland has defined as the public policy of this state, a fired worker may have recourse.  It’s worthwhile to contact an attorney regarding any potential wrongful termination claim in Maryland.

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