Wrongful termination, or unlawful termination, is an employment law term that refers to when an employer fires an employee for illegal or unauthorized reasons. These include ones that violate federal, state, or local laws, go against public policy, or breach the terms of an employment agreement.

In addition, wrongful termination can also occur when an employer fires an employee who has refused to obey work instructions that are illegal. This could include unlawful activities like skirting safety regulations for a specific job task, or asking them to commit even more serious crimes, such as a felony offense (e.g., larceny or tax evasion).

One other way an employee can be unlawfully terminated is when an employer ignores their own company’s policies regarding the termination process. For example, if the employer does not follow the proper protocols when releasing the employee from their position.

Finally, it is important to note that if an employer terminates an employee in a manner that is considered unlawful or illegal, then they can face legal consequences for their actions.

This might mean that the employer will be required to compensate the employee in some way, including having to reimburse them in back pay, reinstating them in their prior position, paying them monetary compensation for a particular reason, and various other forms of relief.

Can an At-Will Employee Be Wrongfully Terminated?

Most types of employment are considered “at-will” employment. Basically, what this means is that an employee is being hired for an unspecified amount of time and that during this time their employer has a right to terminate them at any point without cause.

Under an at-will employment arrangement, the phrase “without cause” implies that the employee can be fired for any reason or for no reason at all, so long as the reason is not illegal or unlawful.

Although the laws of each state may vary in their requirements, the following reasons are generally not permitted as a proper basis for terminating an employee:

  • Discrimination (e.g., termination based on religion, race, gender, age, disability, etc.);
  • Breach of the employment contract; and
  • Public policy exceptions (e.g., retaliatory termination or whistleblowing).

What are Some Examples of Wrongful Termination?

As discussed above, an employer may not terminate an employee for any reason that is illegal or unauthorized. Some examples of how an employee can be wrongfully terminated may include some of the following reasons:

  • Retaliatory Discharge: An employer may not terminate an employee for filing a legal complaint against their business. Employees are protected under the law for reporting certain activities, such as harassment in the workplace, employee wage violations, and other public policy exceptions.

    • For example, if an employee requests time off to attend a mandatory jury duty session, then their employer is not allowed to fire them for complying with such a request.
    • Another example of when an employer may not terminate an employee is if the employee files a sexual harassment complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). For instance, if a supervisor is participating in “quid pro quo” sexual harassment (e.g., promising a lower-ranked employee benefits in return for sexual favors) against an employee, then the employee has a right to file a complaint with the EEOC to stop their behavior.

      • In such a scenario, if the supervisor fires the worker for reporting them, then their termination will be considered to be unlawful and they can face serious legal consequences.
  • Discrimination: An employer may not fire an employee for discriminatory reasons. For instance, if an employer decides to terminate any employee who turns 60 based on no other reason except for their age, then this would be an example of unlawful termination due to discriminatory practices.
  • Taking Leave: According to specific federal and state laws, businesses who fall under these guidelines cannot terminate an employee for taking a valid medical, family, or personal leave of absence from work. For instance, if an employee requested time off to take care of a sick child or parent (assuming that the employee complied with the relevant laws), they are permitted to do so and cannot be fired for it.
  • Fraudulent Concealment: In some cases, an employee may be able to bring a claim for unlawful termination based on fraudulent concealment. Fraudulent concealment occurs when an employer intentionally misleads their employees about their job responsibilities.

    • For instance, suppose an employee leaves their former job to accept one that seems like a better opportunity. If their new employer or the person who hired them concealed the fact that they were firing all of their workers as soon as the new job was complete in order to get them to accept the position, then the employee may have a wrongful termination claim based on fraudulent concealment.

Do I Need to Receive Notice Before I am Fired from My Job?

Generally speaking, an employer does not need to give an employee notice before firing them from their job. However, there are two exceptions.

The first exception is if there is a valid employment agreement whose terms state that the employer must provide notice before a termination. The second exception is if it goes against the policies contained in a company’s employment handbook.

In most cases though, an employer is not required to give advance notice to an employee that is being terminated.

Do I Need a Lawyer If I Have Been Wrongfully Terminated?

If you believe that you were wrongfully terminated from your job, it may be in your best interest to contact a local employment law attorney for advice.

An experienced employment law attorney will be able to determine whether you have a supportable claim, can provide legal guidance regarding the applicable laws, and can advocate on your behalf in court against your employer if necessary.