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N.C. workers can cite ‘public policy’ violations in wrongful discharge cases

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Firing,HR Management,Human Resources

Attorneys for employees who miss important filing deadlines for discrimination lawsuits are always looking for new ways to sue. And in North Carolina, they’ll now get a second bite at the apple.

Although North Carolina is an at-will employment state—that is, employees can be fired for any reason or no reason at all as long as it is not a reason prohibited by law—that doesn’t mean that there aren’t exceptions. One of those is the so-called “public policy” exception, which allows employees to sue for wrongful discharge if their firings violate North Carolina public policy.

The problem is, lots of things can violate public policy, including sex discrimination. That loophole allows an employee who missed EEOC filing deadlines to file a new, separate lawsuit alleging wrongful discharge.

Recent case: Hewlett-Packard fired Angela Hughes because she allegedly complained to the HR office that a reduction in force amounted to sex discrimination.

Hughes sued, alleging wrongful discharge based on the public policy exception to the at-will doctrine. She argued that the North Carolina Equal Employment Practices Act (NCEEPA) states that it is “the public policy” of the state to protect the rights of employees to be free of discrimination, including sex discrimination.

The court agreed with Hughes and said her lawsuit could go forward even though she would not have been otherwise able to sue her former employer directly under NCEEPA. (Hughes v. Hewlett-Packard, No. 3:07-CV-216, WD NC, 2008)

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