Wrongful termination can also be referred to as unfair termination. This occurs when an employee is terminated from their job for illegal reasons. Illegal reasons are those that:
- Violate federal, state, or local laws;
- Go against public policy; and
- Breach the terms of an employment agreement.
Because all states have laws that have established at-will employment, most employees will be considered at-will employees. What this means is that an employer can legally terminate an employee at any time and for any reason, or no reason at all, so long as that reason is not illegal. At-will employees are allowed to leave their job at any time, for no reason or any reason.
However, there are laws in place which protect at-will employees from wrongful termination. An example of this would be if the employment was terminated because of discrimination. This will be further discussed below.
Most of the reasons why an employee is terminated are not discriminatory in nature. An example of this would be how an employee may be randomly fired, or for something as inconspicuous as a clash in personalities.
What Are Some Examples of Wrongful Termination?
The following are some of the most common examples of wrongful termination:
- Discrimination: If employment is terminated based on the employee belonging to a protected class, it is discrimination and is therefore considered to be wrongful termination. Just a few of the protected classes include race, national origin, and disability;
- Retaliation: An employer cannot terminate an employee who reports their employers for workplace violations, as this would be considered wrongful termination. Employees cannot be fired for whistleblowing. These employees are legally protected from retaliation on the part of the employer;
- Breach of Good Faith and Fair Dealing: Breach of good faith and fair dealing refers to when an employer terminates the employee for a fictitious reason, such as claiming that the employee has been stealing company property when there is no evidence to support this claim;
- Violation of Public Policy: Similar to discrimination, it is considered to be wrongful termination if an employee is terminated because they belong to a recognized group or political party. Although similar to discrimination, the two are different in legal terms;
- Family or Medical Leave: Employees who require extended medical leave are protected under the Family Medical Leave Act, or FMLA. An example of this would be taking time away from work to care for sick loved ones, or taking maternal or paternal leave for themselves. The FMLA states that not only are employees entitled to unpaid leave, they are to have their job to return to. Should an employer terminate an employee because they take time off, and that time off qualifies under the FMLA, it could be considered wrongful termination; and
- Constructive Discharge: An employee should not be compelled to resign because their working conditions were so intolerable that it was practically impossible for them to continue. An example of this would be if an employer moved the employee’s job position to a remote location, or forced the employee to work in circumstances they knew would be impossible to do so. The affected employee could have a lawsuit based on constructive discharge.
Some other examples of acts that could constitute wrongful termination include:
- Military Service: It would be wrongful termination for an employe to terminate an employee when they take leave from their employment in order to serve in the military;
- Voting: it is important to note that not every state maintains voter protection laws. However, in most states, an employer cannot terminate an employee for taking time off of work in order to vote. This applies to county, state, and national elections;
- Union Contracts: Many states would consider it to be wrongful termination if an employer terminates an employee for exercising their right to engage in a union strike, or if the employer terminates an employee for belonging to a union. Additionally, most states prohibit employers from threatening, intimidating, and discriminating against striking employees;
- Wage Garnishment: An employee’s paycheck may be garnished for some outside debt, such as for child support payments. It would be wrongful termination for an employer to terminate an employee because their wages are being garnished; and
- Other Insufficient Terminations: employers may not terminate employees for isolated threats or violence so long as the employee’s behavior was minor.
How Can I Sue My Former Employer For Wrongful Termination? How Can I Prove Wrongful Termination?
Employees can sometimes sue an employer for firing them. However, there is a specific process that must be adhered to before any such legal action may take place. The first step in this process would be to contact the human resources department, as they may be able to provide assistance without the need for an attorney. Additionally, it is generally required that an employee exhausts all administrative remedies prior to taking any sort of legal action. If the human resources department cannot resolve the issue, the employee may then file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”).
It is important to note that although the EEOC exists to combat discrimination and protect employees, employees cannot sue for discrimination in a federal court without first going through the process as set by the EEOC. Once the EEOC has received the employee’s complaint, they will generally conduct an investigation into the workplace and propose a resolution for the issue. If they cannot provide a remedy to the employee, or if the remedy is not suitable, the employee is then allowed to file a civil lawsuit for their wrongful termination.
A significant amount of evidence proving wrongful termination is needed for both an EEOC complaint and a lawsuit. This is especially true if you were employed in an at-will state. Remember, at-will employees can be terminated at any time and for any reason, or no reason at all.
Some of the most common examples of evidence used when suing for wrongful termination can include:
- A copy of your employment contract, which could further serve as grounds for a breach of contract suit;
- Emails, text messages, voicemail, and other documentation of relevant communications;
- Pay stubs;
- Witness statements; and
- Hiring and firing forms.
If your employment contract states that you can only be terminated for specific reasons, then your employer can only fire you for those specific reasons. An example of this would be committing gross misconduct. If you have been wrongfully terminated according to the terms of your employment contract, and were not an at-will employee, you could have an additional claim for breach of employment agreement.
Remedies for wrongful termination mirror those awarded for breach of contract claims. The terminated employee may be offered their previous position, or they may receive a monetary damages award intended to recover any losses they experienced due to wrongfully terminated.
Do I Need an Attorney For Issues With Employment Termination?
If you feel you have been wrongfully terminated, you should consult with an experienced and local wrongful termination attorney as soon as possible. Employment termination cases can quickly become complicated, especially as you will have a duty to mitigate your damages.
A local lawyer will be best suited to helping you understand your state’s specific laws related to wrongful termination and your duty to mitigate. Finally, an attorney will also be able to represent you in court, as needed.