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Fired Over Plane Slap: Legally, Does That Fly?

By Deanne Katz, Esq. | Last updated on

Joe Rickey Hundley has been fired from his job after a plane slap that went viral. Hundley, 60, of Idaho, was charged with assaulting a minor on board a flight Feb. 8.

Jessica Bennett and her adopted son, who is black, were seated next to Hundley on the flight. When the plane began to descend, the 19-month-old began crying and Bennett tried to comfort him. But Hundley was less sympathetic.

He allegedly uttered racial slurs and slapped the child across the face. But even though the incident took place on personal time, Hundley was fired from his job as an aerospace executive. Should his ex-employer now expect a lawsuit?

Hundley was an executive at AGC Aerospace & Defense, a company that supplies technology and services to the military and businesses, according to CNN. But they probably shouldn't worry too much about a legal issue over firing Hundley.

In many states, all workers are considered "at will" which means they can be fired for any non-discriminatory reason.

If your employees are at-will, then firing them generally isn't a problem. All you have to show is that the firing wasn't unlawfully discriminatory. If your reason for firing was over corporate embarrassment, like what seems to have triggered Hundley's firing, it should be OK.

The other category of employees is "for cause." Such workers can only be fired for certain reasons which are generally spelled out in an employment contract.

If you have "for cause" employees, now would be a good time to review their contracts. Within the document should be all the reasons an employee can be fired. Hopefully criminal activity and behavior that reflects poorly on the company are included in those terms.

Even better would to get specific about what kinds of personal behavior will not be tolerated, even outside the workplace. The clearer the policies, the less likely employees will be able to claim that their firing violated the accepted reasons for terminating a worker.

Chances are good that AGC reviewed its employment agreement, and the laws, before firing Hundley. It's not like he has time to bring a case anyway; he's busy dealing with federal charges.

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