Public Policy Exception to At-Will Doctrine

Under Missouri law, employers may terminate the employment of at-will employees at any time “for any reason or for no reason.”

However, Missouri has recognized that an employer may not terminate an at-will employee where the termination would violate a clear mandate of public policy. The public policy exception prevents employers from terminating at-will employees “for doing that which is beneficial to society.”

Missouri courts recognize four categories of the public policy exception to the at-will employment doctrine:

  1. refusing to perform an illegal act or an act contrary to a strong mandate of public policy;
  2. reporting the employer or fellow employees to superiors or third parties for their violations of law or public policy;
  3. acting in a manner that public policy would encourage; OR
  4. filing a claim for worker’s compensation.

The public policy exception is “narrowly drawn,” and judges and courts may not create public policy absent explicit statutory authority.   Courts must find a clear mandate of public policy in “the letter and purpose” of the cited statutory authority.

Missouri law does not require a plaintiff to rely on an employer’s direct violation of a statute or regulation, but rather, the public policy must be reflected by a constitutional provision, statute, regulation promulgated pursuant to a statute, or a rule promulgated by a governmental body.

Where the statutes cited for the public policy do not, on their face, apply to the discharged employee or the particular circumstances of the case, courts will not find a clear mandate of public policy sufficient to give rise to a claim for wrongful termination.

We have experience with the public policy exception to the at-will employment doctrine in today’s workplace. Contact us to discuss your situation involving this legal issue.