What does it mean to be an “at-will” employee in Missouri?

Terminated employees in Missouri often question whether they can sue their former employers for wrongful discharge or termination.  As with most legal questions, the answer is: “it depends.”

Missouri is an “at-will” employee state.  This means an employer may terminate an employee at any time and for any reason (with a few limited exceptions, discussed below) unless the employee had a written employment contract.  That contract must set forth a definitive duration of employment or specific terms under which the employee could be terminated.  The Missouri Supreme Court has noted on numerous occasions that without a written employment contract, an employee can be terminated or fired “for any reason or for no reason.”  Marigotta v. Christian Hosp. Northeast Northwest, 315 S.W.3d 342, 345 (Mo. 2010) (emphasis added).  This is often tough medicine for the terminated employee.

At-will employment may seem unduly harsh at first glance.  But the rationale for it comes from the right of citizens to contractually agree to terms of employment.  In other words, if an employee and employer both agree to terms of employment, that agreement should be and will be respected.  And the freedom of at-will employment works both ways.  If either the employer or the employee does not desire to enter into an employment contract, the at-will doctrine allows an employee and employer to mutually agree to work on a basis where either can terminate the employment relationship. 

The at-will employment doctrine is limited in certain respects.  Missouri statutes make it unlawful for an employer to terminate an employee based on his or her “race, religion, national origin, sex, ancestry, age, or disability.” RSMo. § 213.055. Federal law provides similar protections.

In addition, the Missouri Supreme Court has created a “public policy” exception to at-will employment.  Under this exception, an at-will employee may not be terminated (1) for refusing to violate the law or any well-established and clear mandate of public policy as expressed in the constitution, statutes, regulations promulgated pursuant to statute, or rules created by a governmental body or (2) for reporting wrongdoing or violations of law to superiors or public authorities. Fleshner v. Pepose Vision Institute, P.C., 304 S.W.3d 81, 92 (Mo. 2010).   If an employer terminates an employee for either reason, then the employee has a cause of action in tort for wrongful discharge based on the public-policy exception.  Id.

Determining whether a terminated employee can sue his or her former employer is not easy.  Analysis of the general “at-will” doctrine and its various exceptions is most often a complex undertaking best left in the hand of an experienced attorney.  Additionally, there are strict time limitations that can bar an employee’s claim if the claim is not made within the applicable time limits. If you or someone you know has a question about a potential claim for wrongful termination, please contact Pospisil Swift by reaching out to Mike Pospisil (816.895.9015) or Matt Swift (816.895.9107).

**The information contained on this website is informational only and not intended to be, and does not constitute, legal advice.  While we attempt to update our site regularly, the information does not necessarily reflect the most current legal developments.  You should not act or refrain from acting based upon information provided on this site without first consulting legal counsel.**


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