Under Maryland law, individuals are employed at the will of their employers. This means that an employer can decide to fire an employee for just about any reason. Of course, there are some exceptions to this rule including that an employer cannot violate anti-discrimination and harassment laws. However, in general employers can terminate a worker’s employment at will, for any reason, fair or not. This principle holds true only when no employment contract exists.
If an employee and an employer have entered into a legal contract, the contract governs the employment relationship — it is no longer simply at-will.
In a recent case, for example, a university basketball coach in another state sued the university after she was fired outside of the terms of her contract.
The coach was fired by the university in June 2011; the university claimed it fired her because she misappropriated funds and engaged in gender stereotyping and verbal abuse. The coach, however, argued she was fired because her employer knew that she planned to file a gender-equity complaint. She also said she was a victim of gender discrimination and retaliation.
She further claimed the university breached the terms of her contract by firing her without holding a hearing. Her contract stated that in the event of a pending termination for grave misconduct, she would have the opportunity to request an arbitration hearing. She requested such a hearing when the university notified her of its intentions, months before she was officially fired.
She ultimately sued her former employer on a number of grounds, including breach of contract. A jury rejected some of her claims but found the university did fail to meet contractual obligations by neglecting to hold a hearing. The jury awarded her compensation for her lost salary.
In Maryland, employees are often wise to seek legal counsel before signing employment contracts. It is also wise to seek counsel should a contract dispute arise.
Source: HL.BLR.com, “Employment contracts: Jury slam-dunks university for coach’s termination,” Karen Gwinn Clay, Feb. 28, 2014