Wrongful Termination In Washington State

Gregory A. Williams, Esq.

Attorney-Owner at Williams Law Group
Admissions: U.S. Supreme Court; U.S. Court of Federal Claims; U.S. District Court Western Dist of WA; all WA State Courts.

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By Gregory Williams, Esq. | In Washington State, can an employee sue their employer for wrongful termination; even though Washington is an “at-will” state? Here’s my point of view (please review our Disclaimer, Terms of Use & Privacy Notice before proceeding).


Washington has been an at-will employment state since at least 1928. See Ford v. Trendwest Resorts, Inc., 146 Wn.2d 146, 152, 43 P.3d 1223, (Wash. 2002) (referencing Davidson v. Mackall-Paine Veneer Co., 149 Wash. 685, 688, 271 P. 878 (1928); see also Prescott v. Puget Sound Bridge & Dredging Co., 40 Wash. 354, 357, 82 P. 606 (1905) (Mount, C.J., dissenting) (“where [an employment] contract is general and for an indefinite time, it is terminable at will.”)). According to this doctrine, an employer can discharge an at-will employee for no cause, good cause or even cause morally wrong without fear of liability. See Id. (citing Thompson v. St. Regis Paper Co., 102 Wash.2d 219, 226, 685 P.2d 1081 (1984)) (internal quotations omitted). Conversely, an employee has the absolute right to quit his or her employment at-will. See id. However, there are three recognized exceptions to the general at-will employment rule: (1) Statutory; (2) Judicial and; (3) Contractual.


Under the Statutory Exception, both Congress and the Washington State Legislature have modified the employment at-will doctrine by limiting employers’ rights to discharge employees. Id. at 153 (referencing National Labor Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. § 158(a)(1) (1994); Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1) (1994); chapter 49.60 RCW (Washington’s law against discrimination); see also chapter 49.12 RCW (prohibiting discharge of employees for testifying in investigations regarding labor conditions, worker earnings, or sex discrimination); RCW 49.44.090 (prohibiting discharge of employee for being age 40 and over)). These are examples of statutory laws that provide an exception to the at-will doctrine that protects the employee’s rights and limits the employer’s ability to discharge an employee at-will.


Under the Judicial Exception, Washington courts have recognized a narrow public policy exception to an employer’s right to discharge an employee; this exception is commonly known as wrongful termination in violation of public policyId. (referencing Smith v. Bates Technical Coll., 139 Wash.2d 793, 991 P.2d 1135 (2000) (public policy exception to “for-cause” employees); Gardner v. Loomis Armored, Inc., 128 Wash.2d 931, 913 P.2d 377 (1996) (discharge of armored truck driver who abandoned post to prevent murder violated public policy)). Under this exception, an employer does not have the right to discharge an employee when the termination would frustrate a clear manifestation of public policy. Id. By recognizing this public policy exception, Washington State Supreme Court has expressed its unwillingness to shield an employer’s action which otherwise frustrates a clear manifestation of public policy. See Id. at 154.


Under the Contractual Exception, employers and employees can contractually modify the at-will employment relationship, eschewing the common law rule in favor of negotiated rights and liabilities. Id. at 154 (internal citation omitted). An employer can bargain away its right to discharge an employee without cause by contracting not to do so. Id. The law governing this exception is not a species of the employment at-will doctrine; it is the law of contracts. Id. Therefore, the law of contracts governs an injured party’s right to recover damages under this exception. Id. at 155. Unlike a wrongful discharge, a breach of contract is neither immoral nor wrongful; it is simply a broken promise. Id.


If you would like to learn more, then consider contacting an experienced employment discrimination attorney to discuss your case. This article is not offered as legal advice and will not establish an attorney-client relationship with Williams Law Group, Law Office of Gregory A. Williams, P.S., Inc., or the author of this article. Please read our Disclaimer, Terms of Use & Privacy notice.