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At-Will Employment and Wrongful Discharge

In Ohio, non-contract employees work at the will of their employer. This means that an "at-will" employee can be discharged from his position for any reason that has not already been found to be unlawful. An employer may fire an employee for any reason, or for no reason at all.

However, there are exceptions. Under Ohio state civil rights laws and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, an employer cannot fire an employee on the basis of race, national origin, gender, age, or disability. Further, employees cannot be fired for filing a worker's compensation claim or under the federal whistleblowers statute.

The "at-will" employment doctrine has been the law in Ohio for quite some time, and over the years the courts and legislature have relaxed the doctrine to some extent. This has lead to the development of a tort known as "wrongful discharge."

Wrongful Discharge

Basically, courts have developed three types of wrongful discharge, although it should be noted that only two exist at this time.

Courts have found that an employee can bring a claim under contract law. (Mers v. Dispatch Printing Co., 483 N.E.2d 150 (Ohio 1985))This is based upon a claim of promissory estoppel, a doctrine which allows the court to treat some transactions as if a contract existed.

Courts have also developed a "public policy" exception to the at-will doctrine. The public policy exception requires the discharged employee to show that he or she was discharged in violation of some clear public policy. For example, if the employee was discharged for reporting a health code violation, this would contravene the public policy which encourages employees to report such a violation. Under these facts, the employee could sue his or her employer for wrongful discharge.

Finally, courts have found in the past that an employee may make a claim for wrongful discharge if they were discharged in such a way that the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing was violated. As mentioned earlier, this doctrine is not longer applied by the courts in Ohio.

Proving Wrongful Discharge

Claims for wrongful discharge are difficult and the doctrines place a high burden of proof on the plaintiff. Under the "implied contract" doctrine the employee must show that his or her employer had made specific promises of future employment and that he or she relied to his or her detriment on those promises.

Under the "public policy" doctrine the employee must show that the termination occurred under circumstances which would jeopardize a clear public policy, that the dismissal was related to the public policy and that the employer did have an overriding legitimate business justification for the dismissal. The Ohio Supreme court in Sutton v. Tomco Machining, Inc. has also extended the public policy doctrine to include termination in retaliation for being injured on the job, but before a workers' compensation claim was filed.


The overall state of the law in Ohio is that an employer can terminate an employee for any non-discriminatory reason. However, this harsh rule of law has been relaxed under certain circumstances, giving employees more rights than they had in the past.

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