Unlawful termination is a concept found in employment law. It refers to situations where an employer fires an employee for illegal or unauthorized reasons. This is also known as wrongful termination or wrongful discharge, and makes up a large percentage of the employment lawsuits that are filed each year.

Unlawful termination may involve the following legal issues:

  • Retaliatory Discharge: This happens when an employer fires an employee because that employee filed a complaint against the company (i.e., a whistleblower). By law, workers are entitled to file legal claims against an employer without being discharged for the complaint. Protected activities may include:
    •   Reporting harassment or discrimination in the workplace;
    • Leaving work for public policy reasons, e.g., attending mandatory jury duty;
    • Filing a complaint with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC); and
    • Participating in mandatory investigations, e.g., wage violations or other lawsuits;
  • Discrimination: A termination may be considered unlawful when it is done for discriminatory reasons. For example, if an employer only fires workers above a certain age, then there may be grounds for a claim of wrongful termination
  • Breach of Contract: If the termination of an employee breaches the terms of their employment contract, it might be found to be unlawful;
  • Leave: Under both state and federal laws, an employee cannot be fired for taking valid family, medical, or personal leave of absence; or
  • Fraud: An employee can sometimes be fired for reasons relating to fraud, specifically, for fraudulent concealment. In an employment law context, fraudulent concealment is when an employer intentionally misleads an employee about the tasks required for a job. 
    • For example, suppose an employee leaves their previous employer to accept what appears to be a better position at a new company. If the new employer purposely does not inform that employee that they are firing everyone in two weeks in order to get them to accept the position, then that employee may have a claim against their new employer for fraudulent concealment. 

Additionally, unlawful termination can result when an employer fires an employee who has refused to comply with instructions that are illegal. This might include illegal acts, such as ignoring safety regulations for a particular job, or more serious crimes, like committing a felony (e.g., tax evasion or larceny).

Lastly, a wrongful discharge can occur if an employer violates the company’s own policies during the termination process. For instance, if an employer does not follow the proper procedures for terminating the employee. 

What are Some Remedies for Unlawful Termination?

Claims concerning unlawful termination are generally investigated by government agencies, such as the EEOC (mentioned previously in an above example), or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

The goal of these claims is to put an employee back in the same condition they would have been in, prior to the events of the illegal conduct. Thus, if the employee brings a successful wrongful termination lawsuit, then they can generally expect to receive some kind of financial benefit for being unlawfully fired. 

One type of remedy that is common for an unlawful termination claim involves a monetary damages award that is issued by the employer to the plaintiff. The award can help the plaintiff recover costs, such as: 

  • Lost wages;
  • Back pay; 
  • Lost benefits; 
  • Pain and suffering;
  • Court costs or attorneys’ fees; and 
  • Various other expenses related to the claim. 

Note, that damages relating to pain and suffering, including emotional distress, and attorneys’ fees, are rarely awarded. It is also important to know that lost benefits refers to the monetary value of the benefits and may require an expert to determine the amount. 

Additionally, some remedies may require an employer to reinstate the unlawfully terminated employee back to the original job that they were wrongfully fired from. 

In cases that contain wide-spread discrimination issues, the court may decide to apply broader remedies that could affect the entire business. For instance, the court may order that the hiring staff (e.g., human resources or an outsourced staffing company) of the company needs to be replaced or disciplined. The court can even order that the hiring policies have to be re-drafted.  

The court accomplishes this by issuing a document called an injunction. This is another type of remedy that basically restrains someone from beginning or continuing to act in a way that threatens or invades the legal rights of another person. 

If you think you have an unlawful termination claim, you should consider contacting an employment lawyer to assess whether you have a case, as well as any remedies that you may be able to receive. 

Should I Hire a Lawyer for Help with Unlawful Termination Claims?

Unlawful terminations can involve a wide range of legal topics. Some claims may include several different legal issues that overlap within a single case. 

Therefore, you may want to consider hiring an employment lawyer if you need help with an unlawful termination claim, especially if it relates to filing one, because they sometimes involve more complex procedures.

An experienced employment lawyer can provide you with the type of legal representation and advice that is necessary to succeed in court. Additionally, a lawyer can also provide assistance if you need help filing a claim with a government agency.