Virginia adheres to the Employment At-Will doctrine, which means that a Company in the private sector may discharge an employee for any reason, or no reason at all, so long as the termination does not violate a federal law or state policy. In other words, in most circumstances the Company does not need “just cause” to terminate an employee unless the employee has a contract that guarantees his/her employment for a specified term.
Wrongful Discharge in Virginia
In 1985, the Virginia Supreme Court created the tort of wrongful discharge in the case of Bowman v. State Bank of Keysville, 331 S.E.2d 797 (Va. 1985). In Bowman, a group of bank employees brought suit against their former employer after being discharged for exercising their rights as stockholders, to the disapproval of company management. In creating Virginia’s first exception to the employment at-will doctrine, the Court held that “the employer may not use threat of discharge of an at-will employee as a device to control the otherwise unfettered discretion of a shareholder to vote freely his or her stock in the corporation.”
Three Categories of Wrongful Discharge Under Virginia Law
Since deciding Bowman almost 30 years ago, the law of wrongful discharge in Virginia has evolved. Today, an at-will employee in Virginia cannot be terminated for any of the following reasons:
- When the employee shows that an employer violated a public policy enabling the exercise of an employee’s statutory rights;
- When the employee is discharged for refusing to engage in a criminal act; and
- When the employee’s termination is specifically banned by Virginia statute, such as where an employee is terminated because of his race or for reporting waste and abuse on behalf of taxpayers
The Virginia Supreme Court has not expanded its wrongful discharge doctrine beyond these three categories.
Individual Liability For Supervisor
In 2012, the Virginia Supreme Court held that an individual who terminates an employee for illegal reasons may be held personally liable for his conduct. In VanBuren v. Grubb, a doctor terminated his employee (who was a nurse) for refusing his sexual advances over a period of time. The nurse brought suit against the medical practice and the doctor in his personal capacity, who was her direct supervisor, for wrongful discharge on the ground that she was terminated for refusing to engage in the illegal acts of adultery and lewd and lascivious activity. In ruling that the doctor must share legal liability for his actions (along with the company), the Court noted that the deterrence of illegally discharging an employee is best served in Virginia if employees in positions of power are held personally responsible for their illegal acts.
Greater Protections Under Federal Law
Federal laws, such as Title VII, the Family Medical Leave Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act, provide employees far greater protections. Although there are far too many nuances within each of these laws to cover in a single blogpost, these federal laws, in general, prohibit an employer from discharging an employee because of a protected category or for engaging in protected activity.
Federal, state, and local government employees have increased job protections that private sector employees typically do not enjoy. The Supreme Court has held that these employees typically have a “property interest” in continued employment, and therefore the government may not discharge an employee without providing due process of law. Thus, individuals who work for the government often have access to extensive grievance and/or appeal rights before their employment may be terminated by the government.