What is Wrongful Termination?
Also known as wrongful or illegal discharge, firing, or dismissal, wrongful termination occurs when an employee is let go in violation of a contract or a law. For instance, you cannot be legally fired because of a protected status, such as gender, age, or race, or in retaliation. It is also illegal to fire someone in a way that breaches an employment contract.
What is At-Will Employment?
Many workers mistakenly think they have been wrongfully terminated when they are at-will employees. In most jobs and most states, employees are at-will. This means they can be fired at any time for almost any reason. The only exceptions are when the reasons for the firing violate a law. Only when a worker is under a contract must the employer have a just cause.
What is an Employment Contract?
Some people work under a contract. Teachers, for instance, often have contracts that outline their responsibilities, duties, and pay and benefits. Employers cannot simply fire workers under contract at-will. There must be a reason, typically outlined in the contract.
An employee may have a verbal, or implied, contract, which provides some protection as compared to at-will workers. It’s more difficult to prove wrongful termination without a written contract, but it is possible in some cases.
What is a Breach in Good Faith?
An employer may be found in breach of a duty of good faith and fair dealing in cases of adverse employment decisions, including terminations. This is an argument an at-will employee may make, and some courts accept it with adequate evidence. Examples include:
- Misleading an employee to make them believe they can expect a promotion or wage increase
- Making excuses to fire a worker to replace them with someone who will accept a lower salary
- Transferring an employee to prevent their collection of commissions on sales
- Transferring an employee or making other undesirable changes in order to force them to quit without needing to offer severance or other benefits
Wrongful Termination by Breach of Contract
An employer cannot fire a worker with a contract unless they have good cause. A written contract gives an employee a strong case for proving wrongful termination. It proves that they are not at-will and that they must receive a valid reason for being fired.
Many contracts specifically outline what could lead to termination. If you fail to meet certain benchmarks, do not complete the duties listed in the contract, or engaged in willful misconduct, you could be legally fired.
Wrongful Termination by Discrimination or Retaliation
Employers violate the law when they fire employees based on age, race, color, sex, religion, national origin, disability, or genetic information. This is discrimination and violates federal laws like the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Many states also have anti-discrimination laws that may include more protections than the federal laws.
It is also illegal to fire an employee as retaliation for protected, legal activity. For instance, if you filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration over safety violations in the workplace, firing you for that action is retaliation and is illegal.
Another example of retaliation is firing an employee for refusing to engage in any illegal activity. If a truck driver refuses to drive more hours than is legally allowed for safety reasons, and their employer fires them, it is wrongful termination.
Wrongful Termination by Public Policy Violation
Workers may argue wrongful termination if their firing violates public policies. For instance, federal and state laws also protect workers from wrongful termination for whistleblowing. A whistleblower may report their employer for things like fraud or environmental violations.
Other examples include being fired over:
- Taking time off to serve jury duty
- Time off for voting
- Reporting illegal pay practices, such as refusing to pay sales commissions
- Taking time to serve in the National Guard or military
- Serving as a volunteer firefighter
Some of the protections vary by state laws. A lawyer can explain if your reason for termination is illegal by federal or state law.
What Should I Do After Being Fired Illegally?
If you believe you lost your job illegally, you may be able to file a claim or a lawsuit to recover your job or damages. A lawyer is your best ally in this situation because the laws are confusing, and it isn’t always easy to determine if your firing was illegal.
Follow these steps if your employer fired you in violation of a law or contract:
- Document the incident.
Recover whatever documentation you can, from your original employment offer to emails discussing your job to performance evaluations. Keep a record of your own recollections of what happened.
- Request a written explanation.
An important document, if you can get it, is a written explanation from your employer describing why they fired you. A few states require employers to provide a service letter describing your employment if requested.
- Identify witnesses.
Contact co-workers who know what happened, witnessed events, or heard conversations involving your job and firing. They may be willing to back up your claims, especially if they have been poorly treated as well.
- Request your personnel file.
Before leaving your job, get your hands on your personnel file if possible. Most state laws require that employers provide this information if you request it. Copy and record everything in the file in case your employer adds something to it after the fact.
Most importantly of all, if you think your termination was illegal, contact a lawyer. They can evaluate your situation, determine if your firing was actually illegal, and provide advice on what to do next.