Wrongful Termination Overview
Getting fired from your job may come with no notice. Even after putting in years of hard work for your employer, you could be fired or laid off without even knowing why you were terminated. If your employer fired you for retaliation, unlawful discrimination, or any other illegal reason, you could file a wrongful termination claim to get lost wages or get your job back.
Labor and employment laws are different in every state. To find out about your legal rights after unlawful termination, contact a wrongful termination attorney in your state for advice.
What Is Wrongful Termination?
Employment in most jobs is considered at will. Employment at-will means that either the employee or the employer can terminate the work relationship at any time and for any reason. However, an employer cannot terminate an employee for an unlawful reason. State and federal laws protect employees from termination based on unlawful discrimination or retaliation.
Even with at-will employment, an employer may claim they fired an employee “for cause.” An employer could indicate they fired employees because they were late, failed to perform their duties, or failed to follow company policies. These reasons could be used as a cover to hide the illegal reason that the employer actually had for firing the employee. Just because the employer claimed the employee was fired for cause does not mean that the termination was not unlawful.
Breach of Contract
Not all employees are at will. Some employees are under an employment contract. The employment agreement may provide for when an employee can be terminated and under what terms. For example, an employer may state that the employee can only be terminated “for cause.” “For cause” may be defined to include terms like intentional violations of regulations, failure to perform duties, or fraud.
If an employer fires an employee in violation of their written contract, the employee could file a wrongful termination claim based on the breach of the employment contract. The contract may also provide for damages, including paying out the contract’s full price.
What Are Causes of Wrongful Termination
The most common wrongful termination cases include unlawful employment discrimination and retaliation.
Discrimination and Wrongful Termination
Employment discrimination is prohibited by state and federal law. This includes unlawful discrimination in hiring, promotions, and firing. It is wrongful termination if an employer terminates an employee based on unlawful discrimination. Under federal law, discrimination is prohibited based on the following:
- National origin
- Sexual orientation
- Gender identity
- Age (40 or older)
- Genetic information
Some state laws have additional protections beyond federal employment discrimination laws. For example, marital status is considered a protected class for employment discrimination in California, but it is not under federal law.
Example of Age Discrimination in Employment
Employers cannot discriminate against an employee 40 and over based on age. Older workers may not be told that they are being terminated because of their age. Instead, there are other signs of possible discrimination, including firing workers who have been with the company longer and tend to have higher salaries. Even if age is not the only factor for firing higher-salaried workers, it may be considered unlawful discrimination if it has an adverse impact on older workers.
Whistleblowers and Retaliation
An employer cannot unlawfully retaliate against an employee who reported unlawful activity or participated in a lawful investigation. It is also against the law to fire an employee for filing workers’ compensation claims, reporting wage and hour violations, workplace discrimination, exercising their legal rights, or otherwise against public policy.
A whistleblower in a wrongful termination claim is someone who reports unlawful employment activity. This could be reporting sexual harassment, OSHA violations, tax fraud, criminal acts, or other illegal activity. Whistleblower laws protect employees who report these violations to the employer or government agencies, or assist in official investigations. There may be specific state and federal laws protecting whistleblowers.
For example, suppose an employee files a claim with the state department of labor for unpaid wages, and the employer is penalized for wage and hour theft. In that case, the employee is protected as a whistleblower against wrongful discharge for reporting unlawful activity.
Unlawful retaliation involves taking adverse actions against a protected employee. Employees are protected from retaliation for engaging in protected activities, speaking out against harassment, reporting discrimination, or refusing to participate in illegal activity.
How Can I Report Wrongful Termination?
If you believe you were fired for an unlawful reason, you may be able to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or your state fair employment agency. For example, employment discrimination complaints in Nevada are reported to the Nevada Equal Rights Commission.
The EEOC handles federal employment discrimination complaints. Filing an EEOC complaint is generally the first step to a wrongful termination claim based on discrimination. The EEOC will typically contact the employer, try and settle the dispute in mediation, then complete an investigation.
Alternatively, if you claim a law violation based on employment discrimination, you can request a Notice of Right to Sue to bypass the EEOC process and take your case to court. Talk to an employment attorney for legal advice if you want to file your wrongful termination case in court.
How Can I Prove Unlawful Termination?
Proving unlawful termination can be difficult. Even if it was clear that an employee was fired because of discrimination or retaliation, there might not be proof in writing. Discrimination and harassment often take place behind closed doors or in conversation. Instead, you may have to look at the circumstances around the employment environment and what took place before the employee was fired.
For example, if an employee was getting consistently positive job performance reviews for several years and suddenly got a bad review just before termination could indicate possible discrimination. Other adverse work conditions could also indicate discrimination, including reduced hours, shift changes, and being excluded from meetings they would normally attend.
What Can I Get in a Wrongful Termination Lawsuit?
If you successfully prove your wrongful termination lawsuit, you can recover a financial award or even get your job back. Damages for wrongful dismissal can include back pay, pay for benefits, bonuses, and other loss of income. Other remedies could also involve being reinstated to your position or getting a promotion.
Where To Start With a Wrongful Termination Claim
You may be able to file a wrongful termination claim with the EEOC or your state labor law agency. If you want to file a lawsuit in court, you should contact an employment lawyer for legal advice. A wrongful termination lawyer can investigate your claim, file your case in court, and help ensure your employer is held accountable.
Get Help from an Experienced Employment Law Attorney
Have you been discriminated against by a potential or current employer — either as a job applicant or current employee? To best protect your legal rights, you should discuss your situation with an employment lawyer. An attorney can help you determine what your options are for seeking justice and level the playing field against corporate lawyers. Meet with a local wrongful termination attorney sooner rather than later to protect your rights.
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