WASHINGTON - For eight years, Joy Vizi, a nurse practitioner at a suburban orthopedics treatment center, had worked under an oral employment contract, but she signed a written work agreement in April 2002 that said she could be fired for such specific reasons as being disciplined by a professional organization, committing a crime or being grossly negligent at work.
Last winter, however, after her employer, Dulles Orthopaedics Group, cut her pay by 50 percent, she gave 60 days’ notice to quit, as required by her contract. But rather than wait out the two months, the physicians who run Dulles Orthopaedics fired Vizi a week later.
Vizi, claiming wrongful termination, sued because the reason the doctors fired her — a dispute over ownership of a missing computer and ongoing loyalty to the firm — was not one of the firing reasons listed in her contract.
But Vizi, in pursuing her case, discovered a basic fact of life for most workers: There’s a strong presumption in the law in favor of the employment-at-will doctrine, meaning that employers can hire and fire at will, for good reason or no reason, as long as they don’t violate antidiscrimination laws or some other specific public policy, much as workers can move from one job to another.
In the Vizi case, ‘‘Virginia strongly adheres to the common law employment-at-will doctrine, and an employment relationship is presumed to be at-will,’’ Loudoun Circuit Court Judge James Chamblin said. Vizi’s contract did not state that she ‘‘shall only be discharged ’for cause,’ nor did it state that (she) will not be discharged except ’for cause,’ ’’ he said.
Indeed, Vizi’s contract said the ‘‘for cause’’ reasons for her possible firing included such things as breaches of medical ethics, immoral conduct and loss of her state license, but said the ‘‘for cause’’ reasons ‘‘shall be defined to include, but not be limited’’ to the list.
While Chamblin ruled against Vizi in September, she and Dulles Orthopaedics reached a final settlement of the case last week, according to the company’s lawyer, Amy Inge. ‘‘The case was settled for nuisance value,’’ she said.
‘‘At-will presumption is very strong in Virginia,’’ Inge said. ‘‘To overcome that presumption there would have to be a contract with language that is written that they can only be terminated’’ for specific causes.
Many negotiated union contracts, for instance, override employment at will.
Alexander Levay, Vizi’s lawyer, said his client’s firing was rooted in the fact that one of the three doctors then at Dulles Orthopaedics was leaving to form his own practice and that Vizi ‘‘was loyal to him.’’
Declan Leonard, a lawyer who at various times represents both corporations and employees in work disputes, said that ‘‘employees more often than not think (the atwill right of employers to fire workers) is a harsh system. But employees were jumping from one company to another in the boom times. They were leaving companies in the lurch and there was no compulsion on the part of employees to stay’’ when they had what they felt were better offers elsewhere.
At-will employment relationships can be terminated ‘‘either with or without a just cause,’’ Leonard said. ‘‘They can say, ’I just don’t like your tie today, so I’m letting you go.’ Does it make good sense? No.’’
But under federal and state law there are certain protected classes of people. Employers cannot fire someone for being part of such a group. Under federal law, for example, an employer cannot fire a worker on account of race, color, national origin, gender, religion, age, disability or pregnancy.
And in Virginia, for example, Leonard said marital status and childbirth and related medical conditions cannot be used as a reason to fire a worker.
But a federal court in Richmond ruled recently that ‘‘Confederate Southern-American’’ is not a protected national origin.