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Medical receptionist claims termination for off-duty smoking

A medical receptionist in the cancer center at one of Park Nicollet Health Services' Minnesota branches is considering a wrongful termination lawsuit against her former employer. The woman claims she was fired for smelling like cigarette smoke. A representative from Park Nicollet declined to comment.

The cancer center has a prohibition against smoking at any time on the premises. Although the receptionist followed this policy, she does admit to smoking outside of her work hours, and has been a smoker for 18 years. She averages a pack of cigarettes a day when off duty.

Six weeks into her new job, the woman alleges that a supervisor instructed her to not come to work smelling like smoke. To comply with that instruction, the woman claims she stopped smoking on breaks and in her car, and even bought new clothes. However, she was still fired.

Many employment relationships are considered at will, which means that either the employer or the employee may terminate the employment at any time. At will employment is typically present where an employee didn't sign an employment contract with his or her employer, or where it is expressly indicated by the language of the contract. Under certain circumstances, however, a termination might be considered wrongful -- and therefore subject to legal remedies -- if it breached a provision of the contract, was motivated by discrimination, or violated public policy.

In this case, a representative of the American Civil Liberties Union responded to the termination, stating that state law forbids employers from firing staff for legal activities conducted outside of work hours and away from the workplace, unless the activity could be considered an occupational hazard.

Source: Duluth News Tribune, "Minnesota receptionist says she was fired for smelling like cigarette smoke; claims discrimination," July 26, 2012

• Our firm handles situations similar to the one discussed in this post. If you would like to learn more about our practice, please visit our Minneapolis Wrongful Termination page.

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