Wrongful Termination and Workplace Disputes

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 What is Wrongful Termination?

Unfair or wrongful termination occurs when an employer illegally fires an employee from their job. The majority of employees are at-will employees, which means that their employer is legally permitted to terminate their employment at any time and for any reason.

This means that the employer is permitted to terminate the at-will employment arrangement for any reason or even for no reason at all. An at-will employee is also permitted to leave their job at any time, for any reason, or for no reason at all.

There are, however, laws in place which protect employees. If an employer violates these laws when terminating an employee, it is considered wrongful termination.

Examples of unfair or wrongful termination may include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Discrimination;
  • Retaliation;
  • Breach of good faith and fair dealing;
  • Violation of public policy; and
  • Family or medical leave.

If an individual’s employer terminates them based upon their belonging to a protected class, it is considered discrimination and, therefore, is a wrongful termination. Protected classes include:

  • Race or color;
  • National origin;
  • Sex;
  • Religion;
  • Age;
  • Disability;
  • Pregnancy; and
  • Sexual orientation.

An employee who reports their employer for a workplace violation is legally protected from retaliation. If an employer responds to the actions of the employee by terminating their employment, it is considered wrongful termination and is illegal.

It is also a breach of good faith and fair dealing when an employer terminates an employee for certain reasons. For example, it is considered wrongful termination if an employer terminates an employee for a reason that is fabricated.

In some cases, a termination may be a violation of public policy. For example, if an employer terminates an employee due to their membership in a recognized political party or group, it may be wrongful termination.

If an employee has to take time off for extended medical leave, which can include caring for a sick loved one or taking maternal or paternal leave, they are protected under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Pursuant to the FMLA, employees are entitled to unpaid leave and their job must be there when they return. If an employer terminates an employee due to taking off for medical reasons, it may be considered a wrongful termination.

Can I File a Claim for Wrongful Termination?

Yes, it may be possible to file a claim for wrongful termination. If an individual has faced a wrongful termination, their first step should be to contact their employer’s Human Resources department. It is important to note that an individual will typically be required to exhaust all available administrative remedies prior to moving forward with any legal action.

If the Human Resources department at an individual’s employer is unable to resolve their issues, they may be required to contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and file a claim against their employer. The EEOC is an agency that combats workplace discrimination by conducting investiations and issuing remedies when possible.

Prior to filing a complaint with an EEOC, an individual should gather as much information as possible, which may include:

  • Documents;
  • Hiring and firing forms;
  • Pay stubs;
  • Written witness statements; and
  • Any other documentation an individual believes may support their claim.

If the EEOC does not provide a remedy to the situation, they may issue the individual a right to sue letter. The individual is then able to file a civil lawsuit. A successful civil lawsuit may result in one or more of the following equitable remedies:

  • Reinstatement to the individual’s former position if they wish to return to it;
  • The issuance of an injunction against the employer to prevent them from taking action;
  • Compensation to the employee for any loss of pay or benefits;
  • A solution intended to make whole the employee, which may include:
    • transferring or promoting the employee;
    • increasing the employee’s wage;
    • or clearing the employee’s personnel file of any wrongs; and
  • Compensation for any out of pocket expenses related to searching for other employment, or directly caused by the unfair termination.

What Should I Do About Workplace Disputes?

If an individual is involved with a workplace dispute, they should first consult their employee handbook. Employee handbooks are used to provide guidelines and instructions regarding policies and procedures of the company as they apply to various work-related topics and disputes.

Once an individual has consulted their employee handbook, they should record everything they can about the situation in writing prior to approaching their employer with a dispute. It is essential that the individual be clear about their issue and state the facts.

Communicating with an employer regarding a dispute may produce better results if the individual is prepared with a possible outcome or solution in mind, which may include changing shifts to avoid an individual or moving departments for the same reason. It may be possible to reach an agreeable solution with an employer prior to concluding the conversation. If, however, an individual and their employer are not able to reach a resolution, the individual may want to consult with an employment attorney.

Workplace disputes which are related to wage and overtime complaints may require the individual to file a claim with the Wage and Hour Division (WHD) of the United States Department of Labor. If the dispute is related to discrimination, it may require the individual to file a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (EEOC).

How Should I Respond to Disciplinary Actions?

If an individual receives a disciplinary action which they feel is incorrect, they should challenge the action in the most professional manner possible. If they receive a disciplinary action such as a write-up, they should immediately inform their employer that they disagree with the contents in a calm manner and then state the facts as to why. Acting in this way could resolve the issue in that moment, without requiring further action, either internal or legal.

Another response option may be for the individual to inform their employer that they will be submitting a rebuttal as soon as they are able to do so. In the individual’s rebuttal, they should address each accusation and issue as well as provide evidence to support their claims. If the individual is required to sign the write-up in order to avoid further disciplinary action, they should do so and notate that their signature does not indicate that they agree with the contents of the document.

An employer’s disciplinary policy should follow certain specific guidelines in order to ensure fairness and respect. The disciplinary policy should be coupled with a clear code of conduct.

The disciplinary policy should be written down and displayed in a location that all employees would easily be able to see it. A new employee should be presented with the disciplinary policies and workplace rules and should also be made aware of any penalties which are imposed for violations of the code of conduct.

It is important that the disciplinary policy is not written as a contract. In addition, there should be a process for appeals where an employee has the opportunity to explain their conduct which led up to the violation.

Do I Need an Attorney for Help with a Workplace Dispute?

It is vital to have the assistance of an wrongful termination attorney for any workplace disputes you may be facing. It can be difficult and intimidating to navigate a workplace dispute or a wrongful termination because the state laws vary on the subject. In addition, in most cases, the employer has an advantage.

Therefore, if you are involved in any type of workplace dispute or you have been wrongfully terminated, it is important to consult with a well-qualified and knowledgeable attorney. Your employment law attorney can advise you of your rights, advise you of the best possible legal actions and their possible outcomes, and assist you with filing claims or a civil lawsuit. Your attorney will represent you before any boards or agencies as well as in court.

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