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In Tennessee, the relationship between an employer and an employee is described as an at-will relationship. That means that in Tennessee an employee-at-will may be discharged for good cause, bad cause, or no cause at all, without being guilty of an illegal wrong. Either the employer or the employee may terminate the relationship at will. Generally speaking, absent discrimination or wrongful discharge an employee has no legal recourse if terminated by their employer. However, over the years, the courts in Tennessee have made exceptions to the employment-at-will doctrine in certain areas.

In Tennessee, our courts have recognized the cause of action to prevent an employer for utilizing retaliatory discharge as a device to defeat the rights of employees under the Workers' Compensation Law. If an employee is discharged for pursuing or claiming entitlement to workers' compensation benefits, the employee has a cause of action for damages. To establish a cause of action for discharge or for retaliation for asserting a workers' compensation claim, an employee must show (1) that he/she was an employee of their employer at the time of injury; (2) the employee made a claim against the employer for workers' compensation benefits; (3) the employer terminated the employee's employment; and (4) the claim for workers' compensation benefits was a substantial factor in the employer's motivation to terminate the employee's employment. The burden of proof rests upon the employee to prove elements of the cause of action, including a causal relationship between the claim for workers' compensation benefits and termination of employment. Proof of discharge without evidence of a causal relationship between the claim for benefits and discharge will not present an issue for a jury.

Tennessee also has a Human Rights Act which prohibits discrimination in employment, public accommodations and housing. The Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, creed, color, religion, sex, age or national origin in connection with employment, public accommodations, and because of race, color, creed, religion, sex or national origin in connection with housing. If an employee is discharged in violation of the Tennessee Human Rights Act, he or she may be awarded damages including reinstatement with back pay, compensatory damages and, if appropriate, front pay, punitive damages and attorney's fees. The language of the Tennessee Human Rights Act essentially tracks the provisions of the federal statute prohibiting discrimination and offers remedies very similar to the federal statute (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act).

There are other regulatory employment statutes such as the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Act which contains provisions prohibiting an employer for firing an employee for availing himself/herself of the protective features of the statute, including filing a charge or a complaint.

In 1990, the Tennessee legislature passed the Public Protection Act of 1990 which, among other things, helps insulate smokers from discharge for smoking. The Act provides that employees shall not be discharged or terminated solely for participating or engaging in the use of an agricultural product so long as the employee participates or engages in such use in a manner which complies with all applicable policies regarding such use during time at which such employee is working. What the Act provides is that it is unlawful for an employer to discharge an employee solely for participating or engaging in the use of an agricultural product. However, for an employee to be subject to the protection of this Act he or she must comply with any policy the employer has restricting or totally prohibiting the use of agricultural products including tobacco during times at which such employee is working. An employer is free under the Act to restrict the use of tobacco to certain areas of the workplace or to totally ban the use of tobacco at work. The employer may not terminate an employee solely for using agricultural products during times when an employee is not working.

If an employer and employee have entered into a contract governing the terms of the employment relationship the contract may provide for an employment relationship other than employment-at-will. Some contracts between employers and employees provide that an employee will only be discharged "for cause". Cause may include any violation of work rules, dishonesty, refusal to perform the job or a host of other factors. A "for cause" contract simply means that the termination of employment cannot be for any reason but rather must be one for cause.

The general employment-at-will rule in Tennessee is also altered for employers and employees who work in an unionized facility. Most collective bargaining agreements between employers and their employees' representative provide that discharge can only occur for "just cause." If an employee believes he/she has been discharged or disciplined unfairly, the contact will also provide for a grievance and arbitration procedure the employee can utilize to seek assistance from the union. If the employee pursues an action through the grievance and arbitration procedure the hearing will be held by a neutral arbitrator who favors neither the employer or the employee.

Another exception to an employment-at-will in Tennessee may be recognized based on language within an employer's employee handbook. In Tennessee, the general rule is that only when a personnel manual or handbook makes certain "guarantees" to employees will the manual be deemed part of the total employment contract. However, if the manual or handbook contains specific language to disclaim guarantees, the manual will not be deemed a part of the employment contract. Although employee handbooks can afford employees certain guarantees, if specifically spelled out, employers may utilize language disclaimers or changing guarantees in the handbook.

Tennessee recognizes a public policy exception to the employment-at-will rule when an employee is discharged for his/her refusal to violate the law at the employer's request, for his/her refusal to remain silent about a violation of the law, or for whistle-blowing. Generally, an employee must show an "implied" threat of discharge for refusing to remain quiet, and the "threat" must be more than the mere perception of the employee.

Employees may seek free advice on employment discrimination matters by contacting the Tennessee Human Rights Commission and/or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

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