Wrongful termination is a very specific legal term referring to being fired for an illegal reason. Illegal reasons include disability, retaliation, violations of federal anti-discrimination laws, and contractual breaches.
In general, U.S. employees are considered to be at-will employees, meaning that either the employee or employer may terminate employment relationship at any time, for any legal reason. Whether the employee did anything wrong is inconsequential, so long as the reason for the firing was not illegal.
An employment contract is an agreement between the employer and the employee which outlines details such as pay and expectations. It becomes legally binding once the employee has signed it. If there is no written contract, but there is a verbal agreement, an implied contract is in place. Implied contracts are an exception to the at-will employment rule.
So, if your implied contract was for continual employment and you were then fired, you could sue your employer for wrongful termination. In wrongful termination suits, courts will consider the terms of your employment, the language used within the agreement, and any written or verbal promises of continued or permanent employment.
The most common wrongful termination suits are those associated with discrimination based on race, sex, religion, disability, pregnancy, or age. Those who are considered to be a protected class are protected from discriminatory laws, practices, and policies, by both federal and state laws. If a protected class employee is fired for discrimination against their protected class, that would be an example of wrongful termination.
It is important to note that you must file a complaint of discrimination with your local state or federal agency before you may sue your employer in court for terminating you based on discrimination.
Some other examples of wrongful termination include:
- Sexual Harassment: Your employer cannot terminate you for filing a complaint due to sexual harassment. For more information, see retaliation below;
- Retaliation: Retaliation occurs when an employer fires an employee after the employee engages in a legally protected activity. Examples of retaliation include an employer firing an employee that filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) or filing a complaint to their employer regarding discrimination, sexual assault, or harassment;
- Fraud: Generally, fraud occurs most often in the recruiting process, where an employer makes a false representation to a prospective employee in order to induce them into employment. In order to prove fraud you must show the employer made a false representation, they intended to deceive you, you relied on the false representation, and you were harmed by your reliance;
- Whistleblowing: States have whistleblower laws that protect employees who report an employer’s activities which are harmful to the public interest. Additionally, some states also offer protection to employees who whistleblow on employers who violate almost any law, ordinance, or regulation;
- Defamation: Defamation occurs when an employer either in the process of terminating you, or subsequently when asked for references, makes false and malicious statements about you that make it hard for you to find future meaningful employment; or
- Violations of Public Policy or Other Laws: An employer cannot terminate an employee in violation of labor laws by firing an employee while they participate in jury duty. Additionally, employers cannot violate public policy by firing an employee for taking time off work to vote, serving on a jury, or serving in the military.
If you believe that you have been wrongfully terminated, your first course of action should be to contact human resources for your former employer. They may be able to provide help without the need to pay for an attorney, or get the court involved. If the human resources department does not solve your problem, the next step should be filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or the EEOC.
The EEOC is in place to combat workplace discrimination, and you cannot sue for discrimination in federal court without first going through the EEOC. The EEOC may then conduct an investigation and provide a remedy for you; if they do not, or if the remedy is not sufficient, you may proceed to filing a civil lawsuit.
For both an EEOC complaint and civil suit, you will need to provide as much supporting evidence as you can. Examples include pay stubs, statements, testimony, witness statements, hiring and firing forms, and a copy of your employment contract.
As can be seen, there are numerous ways that an employee may be wrongfully terminated from their job. Further, successfully filing and proving a wrongful termination claim is often difficult and requires a very well prepared case. Thus, if you believe that you have been wrongfully terminated from your workplace, it may be in your best interest to consult a well qualified and knowledgeable employment attorney as soon as possible.
An experienced employment attorney will be able to advise you of your rights, help you determined the best course of action given your personal circumstances, and even represent you in court if necessary.