Worker Protective Labor Laws in Hawaiʻi, Part 6
Wrongful Termination

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At-Will Employment
Under common-law, this phrase describes the relationship between employer and employee that exists without a written contract or other agreement guaranteeing job security. An at-will employee may be terminated at the will of the employer without reason or cause.

Non-union employees, not protected by collective bargaining agreements, have traditionally been regarded by common law doctrine as terminable "at-will" employees, since the employer's right to fire them for any or no reason was considered absolute. This traditional "at-will" power to terminate may also be overcome by various statutorily protected rights [eg. civil rights; right to form, join or assist a union; the right to refuse hazardous work, etc. ] and/or by an employment agreement or contract that provides for some form of job security whereby the employee can not be fired without cause.

Wrongful Termination
In addition to the statutory limits on "at-will employment," various courts have begun extending a measure of protection to so called "at-will" employees on the theory that a worker may have some degree of property right that may be vested in his/her job as a result of oral or implied contracts made by the employer or if a discharge is found to be in violation of an express public policy.

Several courts, for instance, have construed language in employer personnel manuals or employee handbooks as de facto employment contracts where they describe some sort of guarantee of job security or spell out the kinds of offenses for which a worker may be fired.

The Hawai'i Supreme Court's decision in Kinoshita v. Canadian Pacific Airlines, 68 H. 594 considered the existence of an implied contract.

The case involved two part-time passenger agents who were fired in 1982 after they were accused by Drug Enforcement agents of cocaine trafficking. Denied any appeal rights by the airline, the workers filed suit in State Circuit Court charging the employer with breach of contract, unlawful discharge and discriminatory practices (
HRS 378-2). The Court upheld their suit on the ground that the employer had violated its own "employee rules" in meting out the discipline. In light of this decision, local employers have systematically rewritten most of their personnel handbooks and manuals to protect themselves from future wrongful discharge suits.

from BNA's Labor Relations Reporter (2-22-99):

Tortious Breach Of Employment Contract Is Not Recognized In Hawaii.

Hawaii does not recognize a cause of action for tortious breach of contract in the employment context, the Hawaii Supreme Court rules, answering a question certified by a federal district court. In so holding, the supreme court abolishes a rule-established in a 1972 case-that a wanton or reckless breach of contract is actionable in tort. (Francis v. Lee Enterprises, 14 IER Cases 1294, Hawaii SupCt, No.21631, 1/21/99)

The 1972 case-law ruling contradicts basic principles of contract law that limit damages to those within contemplation of the parties and that restrict recovery of emotional distress damages to when the contract either provides for them or is of such a kind that serious emotional distress is a particularly foreseeable result of a breach, the Court explains. Unintended injury would result from upholding the case-law rule and from applying it in the employment context, the court adds, noting the difficulty in distinguishing between "intentional" contract breaches that justify an award of compensatory damages and "wilful, wanton, or reckless" breaches that justify an award of tort damages.

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