Cheerleader Coach Fired for Playboy Pics: The Exceptions to At-Will Employment

By Javier Lavagnino, Esq. on April 16, 2009 | Last updated on June 18, 2021

CBS reported yesterday about Carlie Christine, a cheerleading coach at Casa Robles High School in California, who got fired after she appeared in Playboy magazine. Carlie Christine's termination, although likely justifiable as a legal matter (though the school district appears to be refusing comment at the moment), might lead people to wonder just what kind of off-work conduct could put them at risk of getting fired.

Let's just get it out of the way up-front that posting scandalous, incriminating, and yes, nude, photos of yourself on the Internet for the world-at-large to see are really good ways to get fired and/or not-hired-in-the-first-place. The fact is that in states with "at-will" employment (the vast majority), an employer may terminate an employee for any reason or no reason, unless the employee's employment agreement provides to the contrary.  There are a few exceptions to this rule, and here are the big three:

1. Discrimination.  This one seems obvious but sometimes people misunderstand the limits of discrimination laws' protections. Under federal law, an employer may not discriminate in the termination of employees on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age or disability.  Some states and municipalities also prohibit terminating employees based on other factors, such as sexual orientation. If the "discrimination" is based on some other reason (e.g. someone doesn't get along with their boss, co-workers, etc.), it may very well be legal.

2. Implied Contract.  Sometimes, the words or conduct of an employer can create an implied agreement that limits its ability to terminate employees at will.  For example, when an employer's employee handbook states that employees will only be terminated for just cause, many courts have held that this amounts to an agreement to terminate employees only for cause.

3. Public Policy.  Under the law of most states, an employer cannot terminate an employee in violation of a well-established public policy of the state, such as union affiliation.  For example, an employer generally may not fire an employee for making a worker's compensation claim, as the policy of requiring employers to pay worker's compensation is clearly established by state statute. Some plaintiffs have tried to stretch the "public policy" exception, with varying degrees of success.

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