The general rule is that most employees may be fired at any time-for any reason or for no reason at all-under what is known as the at-will employment doctrine. However, in the past half-century, many exceptions to the general rule have emerged. Exceptions to this general rule can come from two sources: (1) courts, which modify and make "common law protections" or (2) the legislature, which enacts "statutory protections." Statutory protections tend to be specific, addressing certain subject areas (such as discrimination, workers' compensation, etc.). Yet, legislators often lack the foresight to address every possible situation of retaliation. Common law protections, on the other hand, tend to "fill the gaps" where no statute exists for a given situation.
Common Law Protections
Connecticut recognizes a public policy exception to the at-will employment doctrine. An employer may not discharge an employee for an improper reason that violates public policy. An employee has a cause of action-in other words, the employee may sue-for wrongful discharge when the motivation for the discharge violates a public policy.
To determine what constitutes public policy, Connecticut courts will look to statutes and constitutional provisions to determine if a given practice has been endorsed (e.g. the right to collect workers' compensation benefits) or prohibited (e.g. criminal laws prohibiting perjury). So, for example, because a Connecticut statute endorses an employee's right to collect workers' compensation benefits, an employer who retaliates against an employee for invoking that right would be contravening public policy. On the other side of the same coin, because criminal statutes prohibit perjury, an employer who coerces an employee to commit perjury by threats of reprisal is also contravening Connecticut's public policy. In both situations, employees are protected from retaliatory discharge.
Connecticut courts have limited the common law public policy exception to situations in which an employee has no statutory remedy (see below). Consequently, because the Connecticut General Assembly has since enacted whistleblower protection laws that do provide a statutory remedy, whistleblower claims must rely on the statute - not on the public-policy exception.
In addition, the Connecticut General Assembly has adopted statutory protection for certain activities. Notably, Connecticut has a general whistleblower protection statute that protects employees who report illegal activity to a public body. Also, several other Connecticut statutes contain anti-retaliation provisions. Employees who engage in protected activities (usually filing a complaint or testifying) under laws in the following subject areas are protected from retaliation: discrimination, family and medical leave, minimum wage, occupational safety and health (carcinogens and toxic substances), and workers' compensation.
In addition to the above state protections, federal law provides workers with additional protections. Furthermore, a private contract or collective bargaining agreement may also protect employees from certain forms of retaliation.
Common Law Protections
An employee may not be discharged for an improper reason that violates public policy. Specifically, Connecticut employees have been protected from retaliatory discharge under the common law public policy exception to the at-will employment doctrine in the following situations:
General Whistleblower Protection: An employee may not be discharged (or discriminated against) in retaliation for the following protected activities:
An employee who knows that his report is false will be unable to claim protection under this statute. Conn. Gen Stat. § 31-51m.
Discrimination: An employee may not be discharged (or discriminated against) in retaliation for opposing a discriminatory employment practice. Nor may an employee be discharged (or discriminated against) in retaliation for filing a complaint, testifying in a proceeding, or assisting in a proceeding concerning unlawful discrimination. Conn. Gen. Stat. § 46a-60(a)(4).
Family and Medical Leave: An employee may not be discharged (or discriminated against) in retaliation for the following protected activities concerning Connecticut's family and medical leave laws:
Conn. Gen Stat. § 31-51pp.
Minimum Wage: An employee may not be discharged (or discriminated against) in retaliation for serving on a wage board, or testifying before a wage board. Conn. Gen. Stat. § 31-69.
Occupational Safety and Health - Carcinogens: An employee may not be discharged (or discriminated against) in retaliation for filing a complaint, or assisting in the investigation of a complaint concerning violations of certain requirements of employers who use carcinogenic substances in the workplace. Under Connecticut law, employers are required to post lists of carcinogenic substances used in the workplace, provide a list of carcinogenic substances used in the workplace to prospective employees and regular employees every January 1st, and provide for a training program explaining the dangers of the carcinogenic substances. Conn. Gen. Stat. § 31-40c, 31-40d.
Occupational Safety and Health - Toxic Substances: An employee may not be discharged (or discriminated against) in retaliation for exercising rights under Connecticut's toxic substances laws. Under these laws, employees may demand information concerning toxic substances in the workplace; this information must be provided within 5 working days. Conn. Gen. Stat § 31-40j to -40p.
Workers' Compensation: An employee may not be discharged (or discriminated against) in retaliation for filing a workers' compensation claim or exercising a right under Connecticut's workers' compensation laws. Conn. Gen. Stat. § 31-290a.
Generally: An employee may file a wrongful discharge lawsuit in an appropriate court. The lawsuit must be filed within 3 years of the retaliatory action, unless otherwise specified by statute. If you believe you have a claim, you should contact a lawyer. Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-577.
General Whistleblower Protection: An employee may file a lawsuit in an appropriate court. However, before filing a lawsuit, an employee must exhaust administrative remedies, if applicable-meaning that an employee must first attempt to resolve the matter outside the courts in an agency. After exhausting administrative remedies, an employee must file a lawsuit within 90 days of the agency's decision, or within 90 days of the retaliatory action, whichever is later. If you believe you have a claim, you should contact a lawyer immediately.
Discrimination: An employee may file a written complaint with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (CHRO). The complaint must be filed within 180 days of the retaliatory action. If you believe you have a claim, you should contact the CHRO immediately. CHRO contact information is available on their web site.
Family and Medical Leave: An employee may file a complaint with the Connecticut Labor Commissioner (in the Connecticut Department of Labor). The commissioner may then hold a hearing to resolve the matter, and may issue a binding decision.
Workers' Compensation: An employee has two options: (1) file a lawsuit in an appropriate court, or (2) file a complaint with the Connecticut Workers' Compensation Commission (WCC). If you choose to file a lawsuit, you should contact a lawyer.
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