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Wrongful Discharge

Unless you have a contract for employment with your employer, you are generally an “employee at will.” This means that an employer can terminate you for any number of reasons, as long as the termination is not due to discrimination or retaliation for the exercise of your federal and state employment rights. 

In employment law, the term “wrongful discharge” has a very specific meaning and consequently not every termination is deemed a “wrongful discharge.” A “wrongful discharge” generally occurs when an employer terminates an employee because the employee refuses to violate a particular state or federal law and/or a professional code of ethics, or refuses to engage in a criminal act.

For example, if an employer tells the employee “I need you to bribe a government official” and if the employee refuses to do so, and is subsequently terminated by the employer, the employee has a claim for “wrongful discharge.” The grounds for the claim are that the employee was terminated because he refused to break the law, in this case, to bribe a government official, which is illegal under the “Foreign Corrupt Practices Act” or other state and federal laws.

In addition, it is also against public policy to discharge an employee who exercises a statutory right, such as the right to apply for worker’s compensation benefits for an on-the-job injury. An employee is also protected if his whistleblowing activity or other conduct exposing the employer’s wrongdoing resulted in a retaliatory discharge.

The statute of limitations for the tort claim of wrongful discharge in D.C. is 3 years. See D.C. Code Ann. § 12-301. In D.C., the tort of wrongful discharge in violation of public policy provides a remedy only when no other remedy for the same underlying allegations is available. Kassem v. Washington Hospital Center, 513 F.3d 251 (D.C. Cir. 2008). Therefore if there is another statutory remedy under either federal or state law, a plaintiff may not bring a wrongful discharge claim.

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