Wrongful termination occurs when an employer terminates an employee for unlawful or illegal reasons. This termination violates federal, state, and local laws. Employers who are found to have wrongfully terminated an employee could be held liable. They may face compensating the wrongfully terminated employee through back pay, reinstatement, other forms of monetary compensation, or other forms of relief.
Some examples of illegal reasons for termination of employment include, but are not limited to:
- Violations of federal employment discrimination laws, such as terminating an employee because of their race, sex, religion, disability, etc.;
- Violations of state public policy; or, firing an employee for reasons that society, as a whole, deems as illegitimate reasoning (taking time off of work to serve jury duty, taking time off of work to vote, etc.);
- Implied contracts, as in an employer promising permanent employment; or, promising employment for a specific period of time, but terminating the employment before the specified amount of time has passed;
- Retaliation (“retaliatory discharge”), such as firing an employee who has participated in legally protected activities (formally complaining about workplace sexual assault, whistleblowing, etc.);
- Covenant of Good Faith and Fair Dealing, such as intentionally misleading employees in regards to their chances at promotion or increased wages, firing or transferring employees in an attempt to prevent them from collecting earned sales commissions, etc.; or
- Written promises, fraud, and defamation.
In Pennsylvania specifically, according to Pennsylvania and federal employment law, it is unlawful for employers to terminate employment based on the following:
- Pregnancy or family status;
- Age (if the employee is over the age of forty); or
- If the employee has their GED (General Education Development) as opposed to their high school diploma.
Pennsylvania is an at-will employment state; meaning, the employer may terminate the employee at any time, for any reason, as long as that reason is not illegal. Whether or not the employee actually did anything wrong is inconsequential.
Any reason, including no reason, is a valid reason for termination in at-will employment states. Because of this, it could be very difficult to prove wrongful termination in Pennsylvania.
Additionally, in Pennsylvania, a contract between the employer and the employee may not always immediately remove the at-will status. This all depends on whether the employment contract states the terms for termination. So, if no contract exists between the parties, or if either party violates the terms of the contract, Pennsylvania employment authorities will presume that the employment is at-will and there was no wrongful termination based on those grounds.
At-will employees are able to leave their jobs at any time, for any reason, without being held responsible for a broken contract (assuming the contract did not contain terms for termination).
Those who feel they have been wrongfully terminated should first contact the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) to file a complaint. The Commission will determine if an investigation is necessary. If they do determine that there are grounds to your complaint, you will be issued a “Right to Sue letter”. Once you have receive a Right to Sue letter, you will be able to file a civil suit against your employer.
You may be able to receive the following damages:
- Loss of Wages: The law entitles the terminated employees to any back wages and benefits in order to compensate them. This covers wages lost dating from the time of termination to the time of trial. However, if the employee has found other employment in the time between termination and trial, the awarded damages will be reduced in order to reflect the new earnings. Loss of wages is the most common wrongful termination remedy;
- Emotional Distress: Emotional distress is particularly difficult to prove. The jury will determine how much to award you for suffering anxiety, depression, and other physical symptoms because of your wrongful termination. The amount of emotional distress damages is not easily determined in advance, and many states require that emotional distress claims be evidenced by a licensed mental health professional.
- Furthermore, some states require an actual, physical manifestation in order for there to be grounds for emotional distress, such as experiencing a heart attack upon being wrongfully terminated;
- Employment Reinstatement: A judge may rule that the employer must reinstate the wrongfully terminated employee to their former position, at the same rate of pay and receiving the same benefits as they were prior to the wrongful termination;
- Pain and Suffering: A wrongfully terminated employee could receive damages for pain and suffering if they have experienced a decrease in quality of life as a direct result of the termination;
- Injunctive Relief: A court may determine that injunctive relief is appropriate. Injunctive relief is a court order in which the employer is required to do something, such as reinstate the employee, or cease doing something, such as basing their termination decisions on discriminatory criteria; or
- Punitive Damages: Punitive damages are those that are designed to punish the employer. These measures are rarely utilized, as they are generally reserved for employer actions that are willful and/or especially egregious.
- These damages are not awarded because of any particular loss you have suffered; rather, they are to punish the employer for their actions and discourage others from behaving in a similar fashion.
Other examples could include front pay, lost benefits, out of pocket losses, and attorney’s fees. Additionally, an employer may be held personally liable for the losses an employee has incurred as a result of their wrongful termination. This means that if the company is unable to pay the court ordered monetary damages, the employer must use their own personal bank accounts to pay the fines to the employee.
Wrongful termination can be especially difficult to prove in at-will employment states such as Pennsylvania. Thus, it may be in your best interest to consult with a knowledgeable and qualified employment attorney.
They will be able to assist you in determining if you were wrongfully terminated, explain your state’s specific laws to you, as well as represent you in court, if necessary.