Wrongful termination, also known as unlawful termination or wrongful discharge, is a term used in employment law that refers to a situation in which an employee is fired by their employer for reasons that are considered either illegal, unjustified or contrary to public policy.
The following is a list of some of the unlawful reasons for terminating a person’s employment, that may support a claim for wrongful termination:
- When an employer fires an employee for a reason that violates any federal, state, or local laws, e.g. an employer fires an employee for making a workers compensation claim;
- If the employer’s justification for the termination violates public policy;
- If the employer terminates an employee for refusing to obey work instructions that are illegal and would have resulted in the employee committing a crime or some other unlawful conduct.;
- When the employer chooses to ignore their own company policy and terminates a person’s employment in violation of company policies and procedures.
For example, in the state of Pennsylvania, an employer cannot fire an employee for any of the following reasons:
- Taking time off to perform a civic duty, such as voting or serving on a jury;
- Filing a workers’ compensation or workplace discrimination claim;
- For reasons that constitute discrimination on the basis of age, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion or national origin;
- As retaliation for an employee’s refusal to participate in immoral or illegal behavior at work.
Were an employer to fire an employee for any of these reasons, the employee would have a claim for wrongful termination.
A wrongful termination case may also involve other kinds of claims, e.g. breach of an employment contract if the termination violates the terms of an employment contract, whether the contract is express or implied.
How Do You Prove Wrongful Termination?
The evidence that is needed to prove wrongful termination depends on the facts of a specific case. As a general rule of thumb, however, the following forms of evidence would be helpful in proving that a person was employed under certain terms and conditions and was fired for an impermissible reason:
- Evidence to show that the person was employed;
- Evidence to show the terms and conditions of the employment, e.g. a written employment contract, if one exists, or a copy of any policy and procedures manual that the company may have distributed to its employees;
- Copies of the contents of the fired employees personnel file, including such items as past performance reviews and any other documents showing the quality of the employee’s job performance;
- Documentation of wages or salary the employee lost and other monetary losses caused by the termination;
- Any documentation or other evidence of the reason(s) for the termination of employment.
How Can You File a Complaint Against Your Employer?
If an employee was terminated for a reason that involved discrimination on the basis of age, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion or national origin, the employee must first file a claim with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). A person can submit a claim on the EEOC’s website, contact their main phone number for instructions, or visit a local EEOC office or a state Fair Employment Practices Agency (FEPA) in the area where the employee resides. It is critical to act promptly as rights can be lost due to the passage of time.
The EEOC conducts an investigation into their employer and/or company, which may lead to the EEOC filing a complaint against the employer, or the EEOC notifies the fired employee of their right to file their own civil lawsuit in a court of law.
Claims that do not involve allegations of prohibited discrimination do not have to go through the EEOC. The person who claims they have been wrongfully terminated for a reason not involving prohibited discrimination can proceed directly to civil court and file a lawsuit for wrongful termination.
Can You Sue for Being Wrongfully Terminated?
As discussed above, an employee can file a lawsuit against their former employer for wrongful termination. The legal claims, or causes of action, alleged in the lawsuit are determined by the circumstances of the firing that led to the claim and can involve more than one area of the law.
For example, if an employee’s termination breached the terms of their employment contract, then they may bring a breach of contract action. Also they may have a claim based on an alleged violation of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, if the worker was employed in a state that recognizes an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing in every contract of employment, e.g. California..
Other claims that might be made in a lawsuit involving termination of employment are fraudulent concealment or wage and hour violations.
What Damages Can You Receive from a Wrongful Termination Lawsuit?
The remedy for wrongful termination usually involves some form of a money damages award. The amount that a wrongfully terminated employee may recover from their employer will largely depend on the facts and circumstances of each case, as well as the law of a particular state in which the suit is filed.
Thus, the amount of damages, if awarded, will vary depending on the circumstances of each lawsuit. However the kind of losses that can be compensated remain the same according to the law, and covers the following items:
- Lost wages or salary;
- The value of lost benefits (note that proving the monetary value of benefits may require the use of an expert witness);
- Front pay that compensates the fired worker for lost wages from the time of their trial into the future. Front pay is available if the worker has not been able to find a new job by the time their trial takes place, or damages for front pay may be appropriate if the worker’s new job pays less than the previous position;
- Possibly court costs or attorneys’ fees, although most lawyers will represent a fired employee on a contingency fee basis, so recovery of attorney’s fees would not be appropriate;
- Pain and suffering, e.g., the mental or psychological aspect of injury as opposed to the physical aspect;
- Occasionally, if an employer’s conduct is especially egregious, punitive damages might be awarded;
- Any other provable economic losses related to the firing.
A person who has been fired should try to keep notes of conversations relating to the event and of the events themselves. It is easy to forget what exactly was said and done by various players long afterwards, especially if the person was surprised by the firing. Notes will aid memory later.
It should be noted, however, that attorneys’ fees or damages for pain and suffering are rarely awarded. Often an attorney represents a client in a wrongful termination case on a contingency fee basis, which means that the attorney takes a percentage of the damages award that they win for the client. So, an award of attorney’s fees would not be appropriate.
In addition, there are also some other remedies that a court may decide to award, such as reinstating the fired employee to the job from which they were fired.
For cases based on discrimination, federal law places a cap, or limit, on the amount of compensatory damages an employee can receive. This would include the total for compensatory damages (out-of-pocket costs and pain and suffering combined) and punitive damages. The caps depend on the size of the employer as follows:
- Employers that have 15 to 100 employees: damages are limited to $50,000;
- Employers that have 101 to 200 employees: $100,000;
- Employers that have 201 to 500 employees: $200,000;
- Employers that have more than 500 employees: $300,000.
Do I Need a Lawyer to File a Wrongful Termination Claim?
As noted above, a wrongful termination claim can involve a range of legal issues including possible breach of contract. This means that you may need to have a solid understanding of the law generally, as well as the specific federal, state or local statutes that may apply to your case. Also, a procedure before the EEOC may be required in some cases
So, if you need to file a claim for wrongful termination, it is in your best interest to consult an experienced wrongful termination lawyer for further guidance.
An experienced wrongful termination lawyer will be able to determine whether you have a claim that is likely to succeed and can discuss the potential outcomes of your case. Your lawyer can also provide legal advice about the relevant laws and procedures, and can help you file your claim. Lastly, they can also represent you in court if necessary.