If a Tennessee employee is not a party to a work contract, they are an "at-will" employee. This means that their employer has the legal right to fire the employee for any reason or for no reason at all. Conversely, the employee has the legal right to quit for any reason or for no reason at all.
However, just like any other rules, there are exceptions to at-will employment rules, causing an employer to face legal liability for firing an employee. It is important for workers to understand what these exceptions are, so they can recognize if their rights are being violated.
One well-known exception to at-will employment is discrimination. Employers cannot fire a worker based on the worker's race, national origin, color, gender, religion, age or disability. In addition, an at-will employee cannot be fired for being called into military service or for voting in elections. At-will employees also cannot be fired for filing a workers' compensation claim. Also, an at-will employee cannot be fired for serving jury duty. There are other exceptions as well in which employers may be in violation of employment laws, including retaliatory discharge.
If a worker is suing for retaliatory discharge, it is the worker's burden to establish a prima facie case that they were fired in retaliation for exercising the rights all at-will employees have. Prima facie means that the plaintiff's evidence is sufficient to prove the case unless the other side can present sufficient evidence otherwise.
Thus, if the employee provides sufficient evidence of unlawful retaliation, the employer can only rebut this inference if it can present evidence that there was a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for firing the employee. The burden then shifts back to the employee to show that the employer's reason for firing the employee was not the actual reason they fired the employee, but that it was simply a pretext for unlawful retaliation.
So, while it may seem that an "at-will" employee is at the mercy of the employer's whims, employees in such situations still have rights. However, pursuing cases of unlawful retaliation are incredibly complex. Therefore, those who believe they have been wrongfully discharged may want to seek the assistance of an employment law attorney, who can provide them with the information they need to determine how to proceed.