Wrongful termination, or unlawful termination, is an employment law term that refers to when an employer fires an employee for illegal or unauthorized reasons. These are reasons that:
- Violate federal, state, or local laws;
- Go against public policy; and/or
- Breach the terms of an employment agreement.
Wrongful termination can also occur when an employer fires an employee who has refused to obey work instructions that are illegal. Examples of this include unlawful activities such as ignoring safety regulations for a specific task, or asking them to commit a felony offense such as larceny or tax evasion.
An employee can also be unlawfully terminated when an employer ignores their own company’s policies which govern the termination process. An example of this would be if the employer does not follow the proper protocols when releasing the employee from their position.
It is important to note that if an employer terminates an employee in a manner that is considered to be unlawful or illegal, there are legal consequences. The employer will likely be required to compensate the employee in some way, including:
- Having to reimburse them in back pay;
- Reinstating them to their prior position; and/or
- Paying them monetary compensation for a specific reason.
Generally speaking, an employer does not need to give an employee any notice before firing them from their job. However, there are two exceptions which could constitute wrongful or unlawful termination.
The first would be if there is a valid employment agreement stating that the employer must provide notice before a termination. The second, which was previously mentioned, would be if it goes against the policies that are contained in a company’s employment handbook.
What Is Unlawful Termination?
Unlawful termination 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 is frequently associated with the following legal issues:
- Retaliatory Discharge: When an employer fires an employee because that employee filed a complaint against the company, otherwise known as a whistleblower. By law, workers are entitled to file legal claims against an employer without being discharged for the complaint. Some examples of protected activities may include:
- Reporting harassment or discrimination in the workplace;
- Leaving work for public policy reasons, such as attending mandatory jury duty;
- Filing a complaint with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (“EEOC”); and/or
- Participating in mandatory investigations, such as wage violations or other lawsuits.
- Discrimination: Termination may be considered unlawful when it is done for discriminatory reasons. An example of this would be how if an employer only fires workers who are above a certain age, there may be grounds for a claim of wrongful termination.
- Breach of Contract: If terminating an employee breaches the terms of their employment contract, it could be unlawful.
- Leave: Under both state and federal laws, an employee cannot be fired for taking a valid family, medical, or personal leave of absence.
- Fraud: An employee is fired for reasons associated with fraud; specifically, for fraudulent concealment. In an employment law context, fraudulent concealment refers to when an employer intentionally misleads an employee about the tasks required for a job.
- An example of this would be if 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 them that they are firing everyone in two weeks in an attempt to get them to accept the position, the employee may have a claim against their new employer for fraudulent concealment.
Can An At-Will Employee Be Unlawfully Terminated?
In general, the majority of employment arrangements are considered to be “at-will” employment. What this means is that an employee is being hired for an unspecified amount of time, and that during this time their employer has the right to terminate them at any point and without cause.
Under an at-will employment arrangement, the phrase “without cause” implies that the employee can be fired for any reason or for no reason at all, as long as the reason is not considered to be illegal or unlawful.
Although the laws of each state may vary in terms of what constitutes “without cause,” the following reasons are generally not considered to be proper basis for terminating an employee:
- Discrimination, meaning termination that is based on religion, race, gender, age, disability, etc.;
- Breach of the employment contract, as was previously discussed; and
- Public policy exceptions as previously mentioned, such as retaliatory termination or whistleblowing.
What Are Some Common Legal Remedies For Unlawful Termination?
Legal claims associated with unlawful termination are generally investigated by government agencies, such as the EEOC or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”).
These claims are intended to restore an employee back to the same condition that they would have been in, prior to the events of the illegal conduct. What this means is that if the employee brings a successful wrongful termination lawsuit, they can generally expect to receive some kind of financial benefit for being unlawfully terminated.
One specific type of remedy that is common for an unlawful termination claim would be a monetary damages award, which is issued by the employer to the plaintiff on a court order. This award can help the plaintiff recover costs, such as those associated with:
- Lost wages;
- Back pay;
- Lost benefits;
- Pain and suffering; and/or
- Court costs or attorneys’ fees.
It is important to note that damages associated with a claim of pain and suffering, including emotional distress, and attorneys’ fees are rarely awarded. Additionally, it is important to note that the term “lost benefits” refers to the monetary value of the benefits, and may require an expert witness in order to determine the appropriate amount. Some legal remedies may require an employer to reinstate the unlawfully terminated employee back to the original job that they were wrongfully fired from, if the employee chooses to do so.
In cases which involve wide-spread discrimination issues, the court may decide to apply broader remedies that could affect the entire business. An example of this would be how the court may order that the hiring staff, such as the human resources department or an outsourced staffing company, must be replaced or disciplined. The court can also order that the hiring policies must be redrafted in order for them to be considered fair and lawful.
This is done by issuing a document called an injunction, which is another type of remedy that essentially restrains someone from beginning or continuing to act in a way that threatens or invades the legal rights of another person.
Do I Need A Lawyer For Unlawful Termination?
If you have been unlawfully terminated and believe that you have a legal claim, you should consult with a wrongful termination lawyer in order to assess whether you have a case. Your attorney can help you understand your legal rights and options according to your state’s specific employment laws, as well as any remedies that you may be able to receive.
Additionally, an experienced lawyer can provide assistance if you need help filing a claim with a government agency such as the EEOC. Finally, an attorney will also be able to represent you in court, as needed.