In Virginia, as in most states, the employment contract is presumed to be “at will,” which means that the employment term extends for an indefinite period. In other words, the employment agreement can go on forever. On the other hand, either the employer or the employee may end the contract at any time, for any reason, or for no reason at all.
One exception to the employment-at-will doctrine which is recognized by Virginia courts is a termination that violates public policy. This exception is very narrow and requires the employee to show that the public policy is stated clearly in the statutes of Virginia. This type of claim is sometimes called a Bowman claim because it was first recognized by the Virginia Supreme Court in the case of Bowman v. State Bank of Keysville.
In order to state a Bowman claim, a terminated employee must first identify the public policy, as stated in the statutes of Virginia, and then must show one of the three following things:
- that the statute granted the employee a right that the employer took away by terminating the employee; or
- that the employee was clearly a member of that class of persons directly entitled to the protection enunciated by the public policy; or
- that the discharge was based on the employee’s refusal to engage in a criminal act.
In a Bowman claim, the employer may be liable for damages to a wrongfully termination employee. In addition, an individual who was not the plaintiff’s actual employer but who was the actor in violation of public policy and who participated in the wrongful firing of the plaintiff, such as a supervisor or manager, may also be liable.