Wrongful dismissal occurs when an employee is fired or terminated from their job in a manner that violates federal, state, or local laws, a company’s own policies and procedures or an employment contract. Under most employment arrangements, employers are free to fire a worker whenever they wish. And they generally fire workers for certain reasons, such as failing to perform their job or providing substandard work.

However, employers cannot fire workers for certain reasons, such as those based on discrimination. If an employer fires an employee for prohibited reasons, then the employee might file a lawsuit for wrongful dismissal.

Wrongful dismissal is also called “wrongful termination” or “wrongful discharge.” These types of claims, along with wage/hour disputes, make up a substantial amount of employment law cases each year. Wrongful termination differs from state to state because it is mostly based on state law.

What Are Some Forms of Wrongful Dismissal?

There are many different forms of wrongful dismissal. Generally speaking, an employer cannot discharge an employee for reasons such as:

  • Discrimination: Anti-discrimination laws prevent employers from firing workers because of their race, age, gender, sexual orientation, political/religious affiliation, or national origin;
  • Retaliation: Employers cannot fire a worker in retaliation for filing a complaint with a government agency against the company;
  • Illegal Acts: Employers cannot fire an employee because of their failure to comply with requests to perform illegal acts, e.g., if a worker refuses to alter financial records according to their boss’s instruction;
  • Civic Duty: Employers cannot penalize an employee for taking time off to perform a civic duty, such as voting or serving on a jury;
  • Workers Compensation: An employer cannot retaliate against a worker for filing workers compensation or workplace discrimination claims;
  • Implied Contract: An employer’s own employment policies and procedures can give rise to an implied contract of employment. The terms of the implied contract are the employers’ own policies and procedures regarding continued employment and termination as expressed in manuals or even practices regarding employment and when and how it can be terminated..

These are just some of the reasons for which an employer cannot fire an employee, even if the employee is an at-will worker who has not been promised continuity of employment. There are various other bases for a wrongful dismissal charge. For instance, an employee cannot be dismissed while on a valid leave, such as medical or family leave that is provided according to federal law.

A wrongful dismissal claim can also arise if the employer breaches an employment contract. Employment contracts can be express and documented in a formal, legal manner or they can be implied from circumstances and the employers’ policies. Employment contracts can also be oral, although an oral contract might be difficult to prove. Any employment contract can be violated by a termination that does not comply with the provisions of the contract.

Are There Any Remedies for Wrongful Dismissal?

In a wrongful dismissal lawsuit, the fired worker is entitled to remedies, the amount of which depends on the facts of their particular case. A person who has lost their job due to a wrongful dismissal may be entitled to the following remedies:

  • Reinstatement: Reinstatement to their previous employment position may be possible in some cases;
  • Monetary damages: The major item covered is lost wages and benefits;
  • Front pay: These damages compensate 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;
  • Out-of-pocket losses: This is compensation for expenses such as the costs associated with the fired worker’s search for a new job or obtaining medical treatment necessitated by harassment of some kind;
  • Pain and suffering: This is to compensate the fired worker for the mental or emotional aspect of their injury as opposed to the physical aspect;
  • Injunctive relief: Injunctive relief would be, for example, a court order requiring the former employer to reinstate the fired worker to their former position, or to stop engaging in prohibited conduct, such as making firing decisions on the basis of prohibited characteristics, such as race or gender;
  • Punitive damages: These damages are intended to punish the employer whose conduct was especially egregious and are only available in the rare case

In some cases, if the wrongful dismissals are happening to many employees, a class action suit may be filed. This can often lead to a more widespread review of the company’s employment practices. Damages could differ if the claim is based on breach of contract.

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.

In addition, a worker who claims to have been fired on the basis of discrimination must file a claim with the 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 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. A 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 against their former employer for wrongful termination. And their damages are not limited by federal caps or limits.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Help with a Wrongful Dismissal Case?

Wrongful dismissal cases can often involve some very complex legal issues. You should consult an experienced wrongful termination lawyer in your area to represent you in filing a claim for wrongful dismissal. Your attorney performs many services in connection with their representation, e.g. legal research, drafting and filing documents with the court, and other tasks in preparation for a trial of your claim.

If you need to file a claim with the EEOC because your case involves descrimination, your lawyer can assist you with this as well. You are most likely to get a better result if you have an experienced employment lawyer representing you.