Generally speaking, a claim for wrongful termination in Virginia can be very difficult to prove without strong evidence. As is the case in many other states, Virginia employment laws follow the rules for “at-will” employment.
This means that unless a worker is hired as an independent contractor or has signed an employment agreement that contains provisions for “just cause” termination, an employer may terminate the employee for any reason and at any time during the course of their employment. However, both federal and state laws carve out exceptions to the at-will employment rule, including that:
- A Virginia employer is prohibited from firing an at-will employee based on a discriminatory reason, such as because of their color, race, national origin, sex, disability, religion, genetic information, marital status, pregnancy, sexual orientation, gender identity, and/or veteran status. Most of these categories will overlap with the ones provided by federal labor laws.
- It is also illegal for a Virginia employer to terminate an at-will employee for reasons that contravene public policy or would constitute an act of retaliation.
- Lastly, a Virginia employer can be sued for wrongful termination if they terminate an at-will employee in a manner that breaches the terms of the employee’s employment contract. The same rule will apply if a worker has signed a collective bargaining agreement that contains a “just cause” clause.
Thus, the outcome to many wrongful termination lawsuits in Virginia will depend on the status of a worker, whether an employer’s conduct violated a federal labor law, state statute, or other policy. It may also depend on whether the firing breached the terms of an employment agreement or company termination procedure.
To find out whether you have grounds to file a lawsuit for wrongful termination against your Virginia employer, you should consult a Virginia employment lawyer in your area for legal advice that is specific to your particular workplace issue.
What are Illegal Motives for Firing an Employee?
There are a number of reasons that may constitute potential illegal motives in a case involving unlawful termination in Virginia. Specifically, Virginia at-will employment laws allow for some exceptions of when certain grounds for termination will be deemed to be illegal. Before diving into some of these illegal motives, it may be helpful to understand how at-will employment laws relate to claims for wrongful termination in Virginia.
As previously discussed, Virginia follows the standard at-will employment rules applied in most states. This principle says that an employer can fire an at-will employee at any time and for any reason during the course of employment. However, both federal and state labor laws provide exceptions for when an employer’s reason or motive may be found to be illegal or unlawful.
Some examples of when an employer’s motives for firing an employee may be declared illegal under Virginia’s at-will employment and/or labor laws include when:
- A Virginia employer’s motive violates public policy;
- The motive is regarded as discriminatory (e.g., it targets a protected class of people based on their religion, race, age, etc.);
- The motive is actually a disguise used to retaliate or punish a worker for a legally protected activity (like protesting an employer outside of work hours); or
- The motive breaches the terms of an employment contract, the procedures laid out in an employee handbook, or a company termination policy.
As an example, it is illegal to terminate an at-will employee under the Virginia public policy exception for refusing an employer’s demands to engage in an illegal activity at work. It is also illegal to terminate an at-will employee for exercising a specific right that is protected under Virginia’s public policy statute, such as missing work to attend court-mandated jury duty.
Another example of when an employer’s motives might be found to be illegal in Virginia is if they terminate an at-will employee for the sole reason of being pregnant. Under Virginia employment laws, this will be considered as discrimination against persons who are pregnant.
What Is a Breach of an Employment Contract?
An employment contract is an agreement made between an employee and an employer that provides the terms and conditions of employment. Once an employment contract is signed, it becomes binding on both the employee and the employer. This means that if either party breaches the terms of the employment contract, then they can be held liable for any actions that caused the breach.
In cases involving wrongful termination, an at-will employee may be able to prove that they were wrongfully terminated by arguing that their employer violated the terms of their employment contract.
For example, an employer in Virginia may be held liable for wrongful termination (as opposed to breach of contract) if an at-will employee’s contract contained explicit grounds for termination. Thus, if an employer fired the employee for reasons that were not specified in their employment contract, then this could lead to an action for wrongful termination.
A worker may also sue their employer for wrongful termination if they signed a collective bargaining agreement that included a provision stating that they could only be terminated for just cause and their employer did not provide an adequate reason for firing them.
Lastly, an employer in Virginia can also face a lawsuit for wrongful termination if they fire an at-will employee in a manner that contradicts the procedures set out in an employee handbook or under company policy. Either conduct will fall under the breach of contract exception outlined in Virginia’s labor laws.
Are There Remedies for Wrongful Termination?
There are several remedies that an at-will employee in Virginia may be able to recover if they bring a successful wrongful termination lawsuit. Such remedies may include:
- Lost wages or back pay;
- Monetary damages for loss of benefits;
- Other compensatory damages;
- Temporary or permanent injunctive relief;
- Punitive damages, which are capped at $350,000 in Virginia; and/or
- Attorney fees and other court-related costs.
In addition, a Virginia employer may try to negotiate a settlement agreement with an at-will employee before trial or offer them a severance package in exchange to not bring a wrongful termination lawsuit against the employer in court. Thus, it may be in the best interest of the employee to consult a local employment lawyer in Virginia before they accept any offers from their employer.
Should I Consult an Attorney?
Claims for wrongful termination generally tend to address a wide variety of legal issues within a single case, meaning that these lawsuits often will require extensive knowledge of both federal and state labor laws.
Wrongful termination lawsuits may also involve explicit legal procedures that can sometimes be difficult to understand without the guidance of a legal professional. Therefore, if you wish to file a claim for wrongful termination against your employer, then you should strongly consider hiring a Virginia wrongful termination lawyer for further assistance.
A Virginia employment lawyer who has experience in handling cases involving wrongful termination issues will be able to review the facts of your particular situation and can perform legal research based on those facts to determine if you have a viable claim. Your lawyer can also advise you on the possible consequences you may face for filing a wrongful termination lawsuit, as well as the potential remedies you might be able to collect if you win your case.
In addition, your lawyer can discuss the relevant laws and the necessary procedural requirements that you must comply with when filing a claim for wrongful termination in Virginia state.
Finally, among numerous other legal services, your lawyer will also be able to provide legal representation during any court proceedings in Virginia state. Alternatively, should your employer ask you to settle out of court, your lawyer can attend a settlement conference and negotiate a favorable settlement arrangement on your behalf as well.