Employment Law -- Employee
Wrongful Termination of Employment
Without an employment contract, a U.S. employee is an employee at-will. The employment at will doctrine allows employers and employees to terminate the employment relationship for any reason. However, at will employment has exceptions that limit why an employer can terminate an employee. Wrongful termination occurs when an employer fires an employee for an illegal reason.
This page gives a broad overview of wrongful termination. It links to more detailed articles that can help you answer specific questions. Because wrongful termination laws vary by state, we suggest consulting an employment law attorney in a city near you. An experienced employment lawyer can assess your case and give you the best legal advice about your unique circumstances.
State and federal law define what actions are wrongful termination. Generally, an employer cannot fire an employee for the following:
- Discriminatory Reasons: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes illegal employment discrimination based on race, sex (including gender, gender identity, pregnancy, and sexual orientation), age, national origin, and disability.
- Violation of Public Policy: An employer may not fire an employee for reasons that go against public policy, such as engaging in protected activities, such as pursuing a workers’ compensation claim, requesting leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), or reporting a hostile work environment. For example, suppose an employee in Florida alleges reports a sexual harassment incident to the employer. In that case, the employer cannot fire the employee for filing the complaint. Similarly, the employer cannot fire an employee for participating in the investigation of another employee’s complaint.
- Refusing to Break the Law: It is against the law for an employer to require an employee to break the law as part of their job. An employer cannot terminate an employee for refusal to break the law. For example, California labor laws protect employees who refuse to do something that would violate state or federal law.
- Being a Whistleblower: In certain situations, whistleblower protections protect employees from being fired if they report certain activities of their employers through the proper channels. For example, suppose an employee in Texas raises concerns that an employer is breaking environmental laws. In that case, the law may protect the employee from losing their job if they bring the information to a supervisor or an appropriate government agency. However, the employee would not be protected from termination if the employee told a colleague or the media.
An employer cannot fire an employee when doing so violates its policies and procedures. Similarly, an employer cannot terminate an employee when doing so violates a written contract or collective bargaining agreement between the employer and employee. For example, suppose the employee handbook requires probation before firing the employee for a particular offense. In that case, the employer cannot skip the probationary period in violation of its policy without the employee’s consent.
The employment at-will doctrine benefits the employer and employee by allowing either party to terminate the employment relationship at any time. The doctrine leaves the parties free to find the best fit for them from an employment perspective without a legal obligation to continue a poor working relationship. However, wrongful termination laws place a vital qualifier on that right and protect employees from being unfairly and illegally fired for the reasons described above.
If you believe your employer wrongfully terminated you, you can file a complaint with a government agency such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). In some circumstances, you may also be able to file a wrongful termination claim in court. The remedies available to a terminated employee in a wrongful termination case may include the following:
- Back pay for the time that you were not working after your wrongful termination,
- Reinstatement to your job, with reasonable accommodations, if necessary,
- Promotion, if your employer wrongfully denied you a promotion,
- Other compensatory damages, including compensation for benefits such as medical insurance you lost due to wrongful termination,
- Punitive damages, or
- Attorney’s fees.
You may still be eligible for unemployment benefits even if you were wrongfully fired, depending on the laws in your state. Getting benefits does not take away your rights to file a claim for wrongful termination. It can take some time for your benefits to kick in, so you should start the unemployment process as soon as you can to help you get money while you are not getting a paycheck.
Before you accept a severance offer, make sure you review any documents and paperwork you are asked to sign. Some packages require the worker to waive their rights, including the right to file a wrongful termination lawsuit. Talk to your employment attorney if you are not sure about taking a settlement or severance offer.
If you think your employer wrongfully terminated you, it is essential to gather evidence and keep as much documentation as possible to support a potential case against your employer. Because a wrongful termination lawsuit is a complex mixture of federal and state laws, contacting a wrongful termination lawyer to protect your legal rights early in your case can be beneficial.
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