The legal relationship between a Kentucky employer and a Kentucky employee can range from the very simple to very complex. Both employers and employees need a basic understanding of these rules in order to understand their rights in the event of conflict.
The simplest employer-employee relationship is known as the “at will doctrine.” In the absence of a written employment contract, an employer may fire an employee – and an employee may quit a job – without giving any reason or explanation.
The most important limit on the at-will employment rule is the doctrine of constructive discharge. An employee who quits a job to escape intolerable working conditions such as racial discrimination, pay inequity, or gender discrimination, may wish to seek damages from the employer for wrongful conduct, but the employer may attempt to invoke the at-will employment rule. That attempt is often limited by the rule of constructive discharge, which states that a person may be deemed to have been fired by the employer if the workplace environment imposes conditions that a reasonable person would find intolerable. For example, a black worker may be subject to discriminatory treatment due to his skin color. An employee in that situation who quits the job may later sue for damages and claim that he was constructively discharged. In Kentucky, an employer may not fire an employee if the discharge would violate an important public policy. For example, an employee cannot be fired for seeking workers’ compensation benefits.
Proving constructive discharge
Proving constructive discharge can be difficult. The employee must introduce evidence of the employer’s state of mind and prove that the employer had an improper motive in discharging the employee. Such evidence may consist of witnesses testifying about statements the employer made or correspondence and other documents in which the employer expressed such sentiments.
The rules of at-will employment and constructive discharge often collide in disputes about an employee’s discharge or decision to sue for damages after quitting a job. Anyone finding themselves in the midst of such a controversy as an employer or employee may wish to consult an experienced employment law attorney for an evaluation of the evidence and an opinion of the likelihood of achieving a favorable outcome.