Like most other states, the relationship between an employee and his or her employer in West Virginia is considered to be at-will unless there is a contract that provides otherwise.
At-will employment means that an employer can fire, terminate, or take other adverse employment action against an employee at any time and for any reason. The employer’s reason can be a good one, a bad one, an unfair one, or it can be for no reason at all. It just cannot be for an illegal or an unlawful reason.
Only illegal or unlawful reasons give rise to a valid employment law claim that can be prosecuted in court. It is unlawful to terminate or take adverse employment action against an employee because the employee is a member of a protected class or because the employee engaged in protected activity. Also, in West Virginia, an employer cannot terminate an employee if the termination would contravene a substantial public policy of this State.
State and federal laws protect employees from discrimination based upon their race, religion, color, national origin, ancestry, sex, or age. For example, it would be unlawful for an employer to terminate an employee because of her age, which is classified as anything over the age of 40.
There are several laws that define protected activity in the employment context. An example is the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which affords qualified employees 12 weeks of unpaid leave for family and medical reasons and also prohibits an employer from interfering with an employee’s FMLA leave. If an employer terminated an employee for taking FMLA leave, then that would be unlawful. Another example of protected activity is an employee’s exercise of his or her rights under West Virginia’s workers’ compensation system, such as filing a claim for workers’ comp after sustaining a workplace injury.
Wrongful terminations that contravene a substantial public policy are often referred to as Harless claims. Courts have identified a number of substantial public policies over the years that give rise to such claims. An example would be if an employer terminated an employee for providing truthful testimony during a mine safety investigation.
Employment cases are very fact-specific, and it is best to discuss your personal situation in detail with an experienced employment law attorney.