COMMON MISCONCEPTION OF "AT WILL" DOCTRINE
NC first recognized a claim for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy in Sides v. Duke University. This what the Court said about the foundation upon which the at will doctrine rests:
"We refer to the obvious and indisputable fact that in a civilized state where reciprocal legal rights and duties abound the words "at will" can never mean "without limit or qualification," as so much of the discussion and the briefs of the defendants imply; for in such a state the rights of each person are necessarily and inherently limited by the rights of others and the interests of the public. An at will prerogative without limits could be suffered only in an anarchy, and there not for long—it certainly cannot be suffered in a society such as ours without weakening the bond of counter balancing rights and obligations that holds such societies together. Thus, while there may be a right to terminate a contract at will for no reason, or for an arbitrary or irrational reason, there can be no right to terminate such a contract for an unlawful reason or purpose that contravenes public policy. A different interpretation would encourage and sanction lawlessness, which law by its very nature is designed to discourage and prevent. We hold, therefore, that no employer in this State, notwithstanding that an employment is at will, has the right to discharge an employee and deprive him of his livelihood without civil liability because he refuses to testify untruthfully or incompletely in a court case, as plaintiff alleges happened here. One of the merited glories of this country is the multitude of rights that its people have, rights that are enforced as a matter of course by our courts, and nothing could be more inimical to their enjoyment than the unbridled law defying actions of some and the false or incomplete testimony of others. If we are to have law, those who so act against the public interest must be held accountable for the harm inflicted thereby; to accord them civil immunity would incongruously reward their lawlessness at the unjust expense of their innocent victims."