A wrongful termination is any firing of an employee that violates federal, state, and local laws; the terms of an employment agreement or public policy. If an employer fires an employee illegally, they can be held liable and they may have to compensate the employee in different ways like providing back pay, reinstatement, monetary compensation, and other types of relief.

What is "At Will" employment?

Most employment is “at will” and this means that the employment can be terminated at the will of the employer. Under at-will employment, an employee may be fired at any time and for any reason or even for no reason as long as it is not illegal.

At will employment is different from contractual agreements which specify how long an employee will be hired and under what circumstances the employee can be fired. The law presumes that employment is at will in every state except Montana, unless there is contrary evidence like an employment contract which permits “for cause” termination only.

Also, there are many exceptions to at-will termination involving different laws at the federal, state and local level which prohibit firing an employee under certain circumstances.

What are Some Examples of Wrongful Termination?

If an employer fires an employee in violation of employment laws or the terms of a contract, they can be held liable for wrongful termination. Some examples of wrongful termination are:

  • Discriminatory Firing: When an employer fires an employee for discriminatory reasons, instead of their performance, it is wrongful termination. Employees are protected under federal law from being fired or penalized for certain discriminatory reasons. 
    • Firing someone because of their race, color, religion, national origin, age, sex, disability, and pregnancy is both discriminatory and illegal. Also, many state and local laws also prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity. 
    • Employees who have been fired or penalized because of discrimination can file a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or a state or local anti-discrimination agency.
  • Retaliation: It is illegal for an employer to punish or fire an employee for engaging in certain protected activities. These protected activities include informing an employer about harassment or discrimination, filing a complaint with the EEOC, taking permitted medical leave, and participating in an investigation of wage and hour violations. 
    • Also, many “whistleblower” statutes protect employees who report who report illegal or harmful activities. For example, if an employer is violating environmental regulations or safety laws, employees have the right to report these violations without retaliation from their employer. 
    • Also, many state laws prevent employers from terminating employees in violation of public policy. For example, an employer cannot fire an employee for taking time off to sit on a jury.
  • Violation of Employment Agreements: Employment is not at will when there are written contracts or other statements which promise workers job security, regular advancement, or specific termination procedures. An employment contract may mention that an employee can only be terminated for certain specific reasons such as not meeting performance requirements. 
    • Also, an employer handbook may mention certain specific discipline procedures such as requiring a certain number of warnings before termination. If an employer violates any of these contracts and agreements, then there is wrongful termination.
  • Violation of Oral and Implied Promises: If an employer violated an oral or implied promise, this can also constitute wrongful termination. If an employer made verbal promises of continued employment or specific termination procedures, then a court may find that an implied employment contract existed. 
    • When determining whether an implied contract existed, a court will look at different factors such as oral or written assurances made to the employee, the duration of employment, the regularity of promotions and the employer’s typical practices and patterns of behavior.
  • Not Providing Protected Time Off: Federal and some state laws allow for unpaid leave to care for a family member or recover from an illness. Employers who are covered by these laws cannot fire someone if they need some time off for certain family and medical reasons.
  • Fraud: Sometimes, an employee can be fired for fraudulent reasons. Fraud may be found in the recruiting process when certain promises are made and broken or in the final stages of employment when the employee is induced to resign.
    • To prove that your job loss came about through fraud, you must show that the employer made a false representation, that someone in charge knew about false representation, that the employer intended to deceive you or tried to make you rely on the representation, that you relied on the representation and that you were harmed in some way because of your reliance on the representation. Proving fraud can be difficult and it requires good documentation.

Does My Employer Need to Give Me Notice Before I am Officially Terminated?

Unless your employment contract states otherwise, employers do not need to give you any notice before you are terminated. This means that your employer can fire you on the spot if they want to. Obviously, they will need to adhere to the standards set by their employee guidebook, but in general, your employer is not required to give you advance notice before you are terminated.

Should I Contact a Lawyer If I Think I Have Been Wrongfully Terminated?

Although most employment is at will, an employer cannot fire you for illegal reasons. If you feel that you were wrongfully discharged from your job, it would be beneficial to consult with an experienced employment law attorney before proceeding.

An experienced attorney can help you determine if there was wrongful termination, guide you through the relevant laws and regulations, and represent you in court if necessary.