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What Is Wrongful Termination?

While employers often have great discretion over the hiring and firing of their workers, in certain circumstances, firing an employee can constitute wrongful termination. For a firing to meet the definition of wrongful termination, it must be illegal in the eyes of the law, such as violating an employment agreement or federal or state law. For instance, firing someone over their religious beliefs would violate federal civil rights law.

At-Will Employment and Its Limitations

The most common form of employment is "at-will." This means that the employment may be terminated at the will of the employer. Employers don't need to have a good reason for such termination, nor do they need to provide advance warning or fair procedures. In every state but Montana, the law presumes that employment is at will, unless there is evidence to the contrary, such as an employment contract allowing "for cause" termination only.

However, there are many exceptions to at-will termination. At-will employment does not allow an employer to fire a worker in violation of that worker's contract, for example. Similarly, an employer may not terminate an employee for discriminatory reasons that are prohibited by local, state or federal law. An employer can't fire an employee in retaliation for reporting certain illegal activity, such as hour and wage violations. Firing an employee for such reasons would meet the definition of wrongful termination.

Discriminatory Firing

One of the most widely known forms of wrongful termination is terminating an employee based on discriminatory grounds, such as his or her race, instead of their performance. Federal law protects workers from being fired or penalized for certain discriminatory reasons. Firing an employee on the basis of his or her race, color, national origin, sex, religion, disability, pregnancy and age clearly meets the definition of wrongful termination. Several states and localities also prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

Employees who have been fired or penalized for a discriminatory reason may file a charge of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or a state or local anti-discrimination agency. Employees who have been wrongfully terminated for discriminatory reasons should act quickly. Generally, claims are subject to strict time limits and must be made before further legal action can be taken.

Retaliation

Employers can't fire or punish employees for engaging in certain protected activities. Some activities which a worker can't be fired for include informing an employer about harassment or discrimination, filing a complaint with the EEOC, taking permitted medical leave, or participating in an investigation of wage and hour violations. Many "whistleblower" statutes protect employees who report illegal or harmful activities, such as violations of environmental regulations or safety laws.

Similarly, many states prevent employers from terminating employees in violation of the state's public policies. In such cases, an employer can't retaliate against a worker for taking time off to vote, sit on a jury, or serve in the military or national guard.

Termination in Violation of Employment Agreements

An employer who fires workers in violation of the terms of their employment contract may be engaging in wrongful termination. Written contracts or other statements that promise workers job security, regular advancement or specific termination procedures, provide evidence that employment is not at will. For example, an employment contract may specify that a worker can be terminated only for certain specific reasons, such as failure to meet performance requirements. Firing that worker for other reasons would be a violation of their employment contract and wrongful termination.

It may also be impermissible to fire an employee in violation of a company's specific discipline or termination policy. If an employer handbook lists specific discipline procedures, such as requiring a certain number of warnings before termination, the employer may be bound to follow those procedures, even when employment is otherwise at-will.

Terminated employees may also be able to show that their firing violated an oral or implied promise. Where an employer made verbal promises of continued employment or specific termination procedures, for example, a court may find that an implied employment contract existed. In examining whether an implied contract existed, courts will look at factors such as the duration of a workers employment, the regularity of promotions, oral or written assurances made to the employee, and the employer's typical practices and patterns of behavior.

If You've Been Wrongfully Terminated

If you believe you've been wrongfully terminated, you may be entitled back pay, reinstatement, compensatory damages, and other relief. Since the definition of wrongful termination varies between jurisdiction, contact a qualified employment law attorney in your area to discuss your circumstances. An attorney can help you understand the laws in your area and what options are available to you.

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