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Mar 10, 2020

The Line Between At-Will Termination and Wrongful Termination

What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “at-will termination”? Essentially, it means an employer may terminate an employment relationship at any time and for any reason. Scary thought, isn’t it? Well to ease your mind a little bit, it isn’t quite true that an employer can terminate an employee for any reason. Certain laws exist that place restrictions on employers who wish to let go of an employee.

The Law:

If a written contract or employment agreement exists between the employer and employee, that employee is no longer an at-will employee and the employer must adhere to the terms of the contract. North Dakota courts have indicated that statements contained in an employee handbook or policy manual may create an employment contract. Therefore, if an employee handbook states an employer must take certain actions before firing an employee, any violation of that policy would also be considered a breach of contract.

North Dakota and federal law prohibits employers from discharging employees on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, the presence of any mental or physical disability, status with regard to marriage or public assistance, or participation in lawful activity off the employer's premises during nonworking hours which is not in direct conflict with the essential business-related interests of the employer.

It is unlawful under North Dakota and federal law for an employer to terminate an employment relationship of a person who has opposed any unlawful discriminatory practice or who, in good faith, has filed a complaint, testified, assisted, or participated in an investigation, proceeding, hearing, or litigation involving discrimination in the workplace.

North Dakota and federal laws give employees the right to take time off work for certain civic obligations and personal responsibilities. North Dakota specifically recognizes the following rights in which an employer may not discharge an employee for participating in: military leave, jury duty, and family and medical leave (FMLA).

The Takeaway:

Be aware that terminating someone’s employment under at-will circumstances, there is a chance that the former employee may bring forth a wrongful termination action. Before firing anyone, an employer should make sure they are acting in compliance with North Dakota and federal law.

Our Interest in Serving You:

My law firm’s goal is to give understandable information and to foster discussion about real-life issues facing human resource professionals. If we are not achieving that goal or if you would like us to address other employment law issues, please email me at We promise to take your comments and ideas to heart.

(Otherwise known as “the fine print”)

I make a serious effort to be accurate in my writings. These articles are not exhaustive treatises, though, so do not consider them complete or authoritative. Providing this information to you does not create an attorney-client relationship with my firm or me. Do not act upon the contents of this or of any article on our homepage or consider it a replacement for professional advice.

Marissa R. Cerkoney l Lawyer
2272 Eighth Street West l Dickinson, ND 58601
701.225.LAWS (5297) tel
701.225.9650 fax