Wrongful termination, also known as unlawful termination, is a concept in employment law that occurs when an employer terminates an employee for unlawful or illegal reasons. This type of termination violates federal, state, and local laws. Employers may be held liable for wrongful termination of an employee.

Wrongful termination settlements may require employers who wrongfully terminate an employee to compensate that employee through:

  • Back pay;
  • Reinstatement;
  • Other forms of monetary relief; and/or
  • Another form of relief.

There are many examples of reasons employees are illegally terminated, including, but not limited to:

  • A violation of federal employment discrimination laws, including termination of an employee based on their race, sex, religion, disability, etc.;
  • A violation of state public policy;
  • Firing an employee for reasons that society, as a whole, may deem as an illegitimate reason, such as taking time off of work to serve jury duty, taking time off of work to vote, etc.;
  • Breach of an implied contracts, where an employer promises permanent employment or promises employment for a specific period of time but terminates the employment prior to the specified time period;
  • Retaliation, also known as retaliatory discharge, which may include firing an employee who has participated in a legally protected activity, such as filing a formal complaint regarding workplace sexual assault, whistleblowing, etc.;
  • Breaching the Covenant of Good Faith and Fair Dealing, which may include intentionally misleading an employee regarding their chances of a promotion or increased wages, and/or firing or transferring an employee in an attempt to prevent them from collecting earned sales commissions, etc.;
  • Not keeping written promises;
  • Fraud; and/or
  • Defamation.

How is Wrongful Termination Defined in Pennsylvania?

Under Pennsylvania unlawful termination laws and federal employment law, it is unlawful for an employer to terminate an employee based on any of the following:

  • Gender;
  • Race;
  • Religion;
  • Disability;
  • Age, if the employee is over 40 years of age;
  • Pregnancy or family status; and/or
  • An employee holding a GED, or General Education Development, instead of a high school diploma.

How Do You Prove Pennsylvania Wrongful Termination?

In most cases, wrongful termination claims are based on either a breach of the employment contract or discrimination under federal or state employment laws. There is not a specific list of steps because each case will be different, depending on the reason for the wrongful termination.

In Pennsylvania, an individual may begin at the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, which enforces state laws regarding discrimination. They may also file a complaint with the EEOC, as noted above.

An individual will need to provide evidence to prove wrongful termination, especially in an at-will state. Types of evidence that can be sued in wrongful termination lawsuits include:

  • A copy of the employment contract;
  • Pay stubs;
  • Witness statements;
  • Any hiring and/or firing forms;
  • Any relevant communications including emails, text messages, and voicemails; and/or
  • Any other relevant documents.

Is Pennsylvania an At-Will Employment State?

Yes, Pennsylvania is an at-will employment state. In an at-will employment state, an employer may terminate an employee at any time and for any reason, so long as that reason is not illegal. It does not matter whether or not the employee is at fault for wrongdoing.

An employer may terminate an employee for any reason or even no reason at all, also known as without cause. This makes proving wrongful termination difficult in Pennsylvania.

In addition, an employment contract between the employer and employee will not always remove the at-will status. This will depend on what the contract states regarding termination terms.

At-will employees are permitted to leave their employment at any time and for any reason. If there is no contract between the employer and employee or if either party violates the terms of the employment agreement, the presumption will be that the employment is at-will and no wrongful termination occurred.

What are Some Legal Remedies for Wrongful Termination?

Remedies are available for wrongful termination. If an individual believes they have been wrongfully terminated, they should contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to file a complaint. The EEOC determines if an investigation is necessary. Should the EEOC find there are grounds for a complaint, the individual will be issued a Right to Sue Letter. Once that letter is received, the individual may file a civil lawsuit against their former employer.

Possible damages an individual may receive as a result of a successful lawsuit may include:

  • Lost wages;
  • Emotional distress damages;
  • Employment reinstatement;
  • Pain and suffering damages;
  • Injunctive relief; and/or
  • Punitive damages.

Lost wages compensation is the most common wrongful termination remedy. A wrongfully terminated employee is entitled to back wages and benefits as compensation. This award includes wages lost from the date of termination to the time of trial. However, should the individual secure new employment during that time, the awarded damages will be reduced and reflect the new earnings.

Emotional distress damages may be available. It is important to note that emotional distress is difficult to prove. A jury will determine how much to award an individual suffering from anxiety, depression, and or other physical symptoms as a result of their wrongful termination.

Some states require an individual provide evidence from a licensed mental health professional. The amount of emotional distress damages is not easy to determine in advance. Additionally, some states require an actual physical manifestation of the distress, such as a heart attack.

Another possible remedy is reinstatement of their employment. A judge may order the employer to reinstate the terminated employee to their former position, including the same rate or pay and benefits as they received prior to the wrongful termination.

Pain and suffering damages is another possible remedy in a wrongful termination suit. The employee may receive this type of damages if they experienced a decrease in their quality of life as a direct result of the wrongful termination.

A court may order injunctive relief as a remedy as well. Injunctive relief occurs when a court orders the employer to take an action, such as reinstating the employee, or to cease taking an action, such as to stop basing termination decisions on discriminatory criteria.

Punitive damages are damages awarded as a deterrent for similar behavior in the future by the employer and others in similar situations. These are rarely given in wrongful termination suits unless the employer acted in an especially egregious manner.

Other examples of damages may include:

  • Front pay;
  • Lost benefits compensation;
  • Compensation for out of pocket losses; and/or
  • Payment of attorney’s fees.

An employer may also be held personally liable for losses an employee incurred as a result of their wrongful termination. This may require the employer to personally pay for the employee’s losses if the company is unable to do so.

Do I Need a Pennsylvania Attorney for Help with Wrongful Termination Issues?

Yes, it is important to have an experienced Pennsylvania wrongful termination attorney assisting you with wrongful termination issues in Pennsylvania. As noted above, it can be difficult to prove wrongful termination occurred in at-will employment states such as Pennsylvania.

An attorney will be able to review your case, determine if wrongful termination occurred, explain the specific laws that apply and represent you during any court proceedings, if necessary. Wrongful termination can have a great affect on you and your family, especially financially. An attorney will fight to protect your rights and ensure you receive the best possible compensation in your case.

If your company has been sued for wrongful termination, it is also important to have an employment attorney assisting you in your defense. As noted above, in some cases, individuals may be personally liable for a wrongfully terminated employee’s losses. An attorney will be able to present your best defense and represent you during any court proceedings, if necessary. They may also be able to help you negotiate a favorable settlement in the case.