On August 18, 2015, a group calling itself Impact Team made good on its promise to release a huge cache of customer data stolen from AshleyMadison.com, a website for people looking to cheat on their spouses that claims to have 37 million members. Since then, it has been reported that as many as 15,000 Federal employees used their Federal email addresses to obtain Ashley Madison accounts. This prompted an article by the Washington Post, Can Federal Workers be Fired for Adultery? That article discusses the holes in Federal policies which protect these Federal employees from termination.
Putting aside the issues of Federal employees generally having greater employment protections than private employees, what if you, as a private employee in Tennessee, feel that you have been wrongfully discharged for your decisions made outside of work? Though we have yet to receive a call from someone outed in the Ashley Madison hack, we receive calls daily from those that believe they have been wrongfully discharged. Reasons stated are generally more innocent, such as reporting late for work. But could someone in Tennessee be fired for adultery?
The general rule in Tennessee is that you can be fired for good cause, bad cause, or no cause at all. In other words, you are an employee at-will. But there are countless exceptions detailed below:
- You cannot be fired or discriminated against in employment based upon your gender, race, religion, age over 40, national origin, or disability. Such examples violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Tennessee Human Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
- Under Tennessee law, you cannot be retaliated against solely for asserting your right to benefits under the Workers’ Compensation statutes.
- The Tennessee Public Protection Act (Tennessee’s “whistleblower statute”) states that “[n]o employee shall be discharged or terminated solely for refusing to participate in, or for refusing to remain silent about, illegal activities.”
- Employees are also protected from retaliation under the False Claims Act and False Medicaid Clams Act for reporting Medicare, Medicaid or TennCare fraud. [See Bright vs. MMS Knoxville, Inc.]
As shown above, there are numerous exceptions to the at-will doctrine in this State. Some exceptions may surprise you. For example, under legislation passed in 2015 which amended Tennessee’s “Guns in Trunks” law, a lawful gun carry permit holder cannot be terminated solely for storing a weapon in his/her vehicle at work.
What about your private life?
In the list of exceptions above, you will not find an exception for decisions that you make in your private life. Some private life decisions, however, may fall under other exceptions. For example, your employer cannot terminate you for your decision to get pregnant. Pregnancy discrimination falls under discrimination based upon sex under the Civil Rights Act and the Tennessee Human Rights Act.
Your employer may also have policies in place which limit workplace relationships. In general, your employer can do this as well. However, an employer better apply any workplace relationship policy equally between men and women or they risk a charge of sex discrimination.
What can you do?
Obviously, there are some seemingly private life/sex life decisions that could lead to a viable lawsuit for wrongful termination. However, without any obvious exception to the at-will doctrine, it is clear that a Tennessee employer may lawfully fire an employee found in the Ashley Madison hack.
If, after reading about the exceptions to Tennessee’s at will-doctrine, you believe that you have been a victim of wrongful termination, wrongful discharge, or retaliatory discharge, contact an attorney at The Lawyers of Brown and Roberto today.