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Navigating Employee Termination: Legal Considerations for Employers and Employees

Employment Law

When Is It Legal to Terminate an Employee in Missouri?

The state of Missouri has at-will employment laws. This means without a written employment contract with specific terms of termination, the employment relationship can be terminated at any time by either the employer or the employee. This holds true provided the termination does not involve discrimination based on any protected characteristic under civil rights law, such as race, color, national origin, ancestry, sex, religion, age, or disability. 

How Much Time Do Employers Have to Pay Wages Due to Discharged Employees?

As stated by the Missouri Department of Labor, an employer must pay all wages due at the time an employee is terminated. Any employee who does not get paid upon dismissal should send a written request for wages due to the employer by certified mail, return receipt requested. The employer has seven days from receipt to respond to the request. An employer that does not pay a discharged employee’s wages due within that seven-day period is liable for additional wages, continuing for up to 60 days until the employee is paid.

What Other Legal Obligations Do Employers Have When Employees Are Terminated?


Duty to Issue a Letter of Dismissal Upon Request

Employers have another legal obligation when employment is terminated under the Revised Statutes of Missouri, § 290.140. This law applies to any corporation doing business in the state with seven or more employees. When an employee who has worked for the company for at least 90 days is fired or quits voluntarily, the employer must provide a letter of dismissal describing the services the employee rendered, the duration of employment, and for what cause, if any, the employee was discharged or quit, provided:

  • The employee requests a letter of dismissal in writing, 
  • With specific reference to the statute,
  • No later than one year after the termination, 
  • By certified mail addressed to the company superintendent, manager, or registered agent.

The employer must provide the letter of dismissal within 45 days after receipt of the written request. The manager, superintendent, or registered agent must sign the letter. A company that violates this statute may be liable for damages.

Duty to Offer COBRA Benefits

As stated by the Missouri Department of Insurance, employers that provide group health insurance to their employees are required to offer COBRA coverage to terminating employees and their dependents. “COBRA” is an acronym for Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, the federal law that gives many workers the right to continue coverage under a group health plan. The federal act applies to employers with 20 or more employees. However, Missouri’s Mini-COBRA law, which is similar to the federal law, requires this coverage for employers with two to 19 employees. Under COBRA, employers who are terminating, either voluntarily or involuntarily, for any reason other than gross misconduct have the option to pay the premiums and continue their coverage under the group health plan for up to 18 months. 

Are There Any Exceptions Other Than Discrimination to the At-Will Employment Rule?

Jury Duty

Under Missouri Revised Statutes § 494.460, employers are prohibited from taking any adverse action, including discharge, against employees because they have been summoned to jury duty. Any employee terminated in violation of this law is entitled to bring a civil lawsuit against the employer for damages, including recovery of lost wages and an order of reinstatement within 90 days of discharge. An employee who prevails in such an action is also entitled to reasonable attorney fees. Furthermore, employees may not be requested or required to use their vacation, personal, or other leave for time spent responding to a jury summons, participating in the selection process, or serving on a jury. 

When Can Employees Sue for Wrongful Discharge in Missouri?

Although Missouri follows an at-will employment doctrine, firing employees under certain circumstances can give rise to wrongful termination claims. These circumstances include the public policy exception discussed above, the existence of an employment contract to the contrary, and the following:

Discharge for Exercising Workers’ Compensation Rights

Employers are prohibited from discriminating against employees who exercise their rights to workers’ compensation benefits under § 287.780 of the Missouri statutes. If it is a “motivating factor” for doing so, an employer may not discharge an employee who exercises those rights. It is a motivating factor when the employee’s exercise of workers’ compensation rights has a determinative influence and plays a role in the decision to terminate that employee. Any worker who is fired for claiming worker’s comp benefits has a civil action for damages against the employer. 

Employment Discrimination Human Rights Violations

The Missouri Human Rights Act helps protect employees from being fired because of discrimination in the workplace. The act makes it unlawful to discriminate based on certain protected characteristics or to retaliate against a person for filing a complaint for discrimination. Employees who believe they have been dismissed from employment due to discrimination in violation of this law are entitled to file a complaint with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights (MCHR) and/or file a lawsuit against the employer in civil court. Types of employment discrimination prohibited under Missouri state law include the following:

  • Racial discrimination: Employers in Missouri with six or more employees, temp services, employment agencies, and labor organizations are prohibited from discriminating against employees based on race or the color of their skin. Race or color discrimination may not be the basis for discharge or any other aspect of employment. 
  • Religious discrimination: The Human Rights Act prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals because of their religion, in firing, and all other terms and conditions of employment.
  • Age discrimination: Individuals between the ages of 40 and 70 form a protected class under Missouri law. It is unlawful to discriminate against an applicant or employee because of his or her age in any aspect of employment, including firing and layoffs.
  • Sex discrimination: It is unlawful for employers to discriminate against individuals based on their sex with regard to termination or any other condition, term, or privilege of employment. Sex discrimination includes discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions; gender identity; and sexual orientation. 
  • National origin or ancestry discrimination: Individuals of any national origin or ancestry are entitled to the same employment opportunities. The Human Rights Act protects employees from being fired or laid off because of their ethnic backgrounds. 
  • Disability discrimination: A disability is a physical or mental condition that substantially impairs a major life activity. It is unlawful under the Human Rights Act to discharge an employee because of a disability if he or she is still able to perform the basic functions of the job, with or without reasonable accommodations, provided necessary accommodations do not impose undue hardship (extreme expense or difficulty) on the employer. 

What Protections Against Dismissal Does the Family Medical Leave Act Provide?

The federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was passed by Congress in 1993. Missouri statutes provide no similar protections. Under FMLA, covered employers are required to grant up to 12 work weeks of unpaid leave in any 12-month period to eligible employees. An employee cannot be fired for requesting or taking leave under FMLA. Employees may be eligible to take family medical leave for:

  • Birth and care of the employee’s newborn child
  • Placement of a child for adoption or foster care with the employee
  • Caring for a spouse, child, or parent with a serious health condition
  • A serious health condition that leaves the employee unable to work

Employers must continue the same health insurance coverage as before while employees are on FMLA leave. Most employees must be restored to the same job or one like it, with equivalent pay and benefits, upon returning from family medical leave. To be eligible for FMLA leave, an employee must:

  • Work at a location with at least 50 of the company’s employees within 75 miles of the worksite
  • Have been employed with that employer for a minimum of 12 months
  • Have worked at least 1,250 hours in the 12 months before taking leave

When an employee’s rights under FMLA are violated, he or she may file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division. The employee may also bring a civil lawsuit for damages against the employer. 

What Are the Legal Obligations of Employers When Employees Are Terminated?

Employers have certain obligations in terminating employees, including the following. They are legally required to:

  • Not discriminate or retaliate pursuant to the Missouri Human Rights Act;
  • Not breach any existing employment contract;
  • Pay all wages due upon dismissal;
  • Offer COBRA benefits for employees and their dependents if the employer has a group health plan; 
  • Report the termination to the Department of Social Services for employees with wages being withheld for child support; 
  • Provide a letter of dismissal within 45 days when requested in writing by a discharged employee. 

What Steps Should Employers Take When Terminating Employees?

It is never pleasant to fire or lay off an employee, but at times, it may be a necessary step to take for the good of the organization. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and the best approach is to avoid terminations by hiring the right candidates to begin with. To streamline the termination process and protect your company from liability, take the following steps:

  • Document the employer/employee relationship from the beginning: Apply all policies consistently, as discrimination claims can arise when some individuals are treated differently than others. Clearly document any drug testing or background checks at the time of hire.
  • Conduct honest and accurate performance evaluations: If there are problems with an employee’s job performance, state them honestly and counsel the employee constructively. It is important to document even minor disciplinary or performance issues because a lack of documentation can be used against you if a claim should arise after an employee is disciplined or terminated. Documentation should include the date of the occurrence, a description of the issue, discussions with the employee, and the action the employer intends to take (which must be clearly communicated to the employee). 
  • Implement grievance procedures: A clear and comprehensive grievance policy known to all employees can help keep minor problems from becoming major, particularly in larger companies with more employees. The procedure must be fair and uniformly applied, and employees should have multiple channels for expressing grievances. 
  • Investigate before taking action: Any matter that will likely result in termination should be investigated thoroughly. Interview all participants and document everything. The goal is to determine whether terminating an employee is the best or only solution to the problem.
  • Document the reasons for termination: If you decide it is necessary to discharge an employee, document those reasons when the decision is made. Include a description of the situation in a report or memo and attach the appropriate documentation, such as performance evaluations, disciplinary actions, and witness statements. The goal is to create a clear, comprehensive, and credible record of the reasons for the termination that can be used in litigation in the future, if necessary. 
  • Interview departing employees: One major purpose of an exit interview is to learn whether the employee has observed any activities they believe to be illegal. If the employee denies observing such activities, you have evidence that would contradict any wrongful termination for a whistleblowing claim in the future. Some employers ask departing employees to sign a form stating they know of no discrimination or other unlawful activities. 

FAQs About Employee Termination

Termination of employment may not be a simple matter for employers or employees. The following are answers to some commonly asked questions.

Is Notice Required for Termination with At-Will Employment

Notice is not required to terminate an employment relationship in Missouri except when pursuant to an employment contract. This is true for both employers and employees. An employer can fire an employee, effective immediately. By the same token, an employee can walk off the job at any time. 

What Is Termination for Cause?

Also known as termination with just cause, this is simply dismissal for a satisfactory reason. Just causes for terminating an employee may include severe errors in judgment, disclosure of confidential information misconduct, and fraud. Actions that lead to termination often result in financial losses, compromised workplace safety, or other undesirable outcomes for the company. Some of the most common just causes for discharging employees include violence, threatened violence, theft of company money or property, breach of company policy, or breach of an employment contract. 

Can Employees Be Terminated Without Cause?

Yes, in a state such as Missouri that follows an at-will doctrine for employment, employees can be fired for any or no reason. Layoffs are a common occurrence when companies are downsizing or cutting costs.

Is It Legal to Discharge an Employee with a Mental Health Condition?

An employer can fire an employee with a mental health condition, but it is essential to tread carefully. Employees with mental health conditions such as dementia, PTSD, depression, and bipolar disorder are protected under state law and the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It is unlawful to dismiss an employee solely because of a disability, provided the employee can perform the duties of his or her job, with or without reasonable accommodations. Employers should provide reasonable accommodations to help the employee perform better and go through the same termination process as they would with any employee whose performance did not meet expectations. 

If You Have to Fire an Employee, What Is the Best Way to Go About It?

Consider the timing and break the bad news at a time when it will cause the least disruption. The best approach is to be gracious and swift. Ask the employee to sit down and come directly to the point. Tell the employee he or she is terminated, and the decision is final. State the reasons for the termination, such as performance evaluations and inability to meet expectations. Speak calmly and professionally and stick to the facts. Give the employee a chance to process the information and listen to what they say about it. End the conversation by thanking the employee for their contributions to the company and escorting them out. 

When Do You Need an Experienced Employment Lawyer?

An employee who has been fired unlawfully will need experienced representation and dedicated advocacy to seek justice and compensation in a wrongful termination lawsuit. A company that employs workers needs skilled legal counsel to remain in compliance with state and federal laws. If a former employee brings a wrongful termination suit against an employer, it is vital to have a seasoned employment trial attorney to defend against the allegations. 

At Riggan Law Firm, we have more than three decades of combined experience. Employment law is all we do. Our firm offers personalized service and award-winning legal representation. Contact us at 314-528-9661 if you need legal assistance in a matter involving the termination of an employee. 

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