If you believe you have lost your job for an unlawful reason, you may have a claim for wrongful termination against your former employer, even if you were fired "for cause." Because bringing a wrongful termination action can be challenging and involve complicated legal proceedings, it may be in your best interests to consult with an attorney. Below we discuss wrongful termination and how an attorney can help you.
Most employees in the U.S. work at-will. In an at-will employment situation, an employer can fire an employee for any legal reason or no reason. However, at-will employees can't be fired for an unlawful reason. Unless an employee has a contract with their employer saying otherwise, most employees in most states are presumed to be at-will employees. Additionally, many employers state in their employee handbooks that employees work at-will.
Although employers don't have to give any reason for firing an at-will employee, in many cases employers choose to give a reason. In such a case the termination is a termination "for cause."
Unlawful Reasons for Termination
An employer can't legally fire anyone for a reason that breaches an employment contract or violates the law. Unlawful reasons for termination include firing in violation of anti-discrimination law, firing as a form of sexual harassment, firing in violation of labor laws, and firing in retaliation for an employee's complaint against the employer.
Wrongful Termination Cases
An attorney considers a number of facts when analyzing a wrongful termination case and seeks information tending to prove that, despite the employee being fired for cause or for no reason, the termination was unlawful. Common considerations include the following:
If you were employed under an employment contract, your employer must have complied with the contract's provisions. If your contract explicitly lists reasons for which you may be fired, your employer can't fire you for a reason not included in the contract.
Most employees don't have written employment contracts. But if you do have a contract that limits the reasons for termination, any other reason for termination is a breach of the employment contract. An attorney can work with you to review your contract and determine if a stated reason for termination is contemplated by the contract.
In some cases, an employer's policies can provide discipline procedures. An attorney can work with you to determine if your employer had a discipline policy it failed to follow. In such a situation, your employer may have breached an implied contract.
If you were terminated due to stated performance problems, your attorney will be interested to learn whether other employees were terminated for the same stated performance problems. If not, your attorney will seek evidence that suggests your employer treated you differently based on a legally protected status, such as your gender, race, disability, ethnicity, age, or sexual orientation.
Your attorney will seek evidence proving that the stated reason for termination is false. A false reason for termination is referred to as a "pretext" when the employer uses it as a cover for the true, unlawful reason.
If during your employment you made a workplace complaint or "blew the whistle" on illegal activity at work, your attorney will advise you regarding a potential retaliation claim. If it is determined that the reported activity was not illegal, the reporting employee is still protected as along as the report was made in good faith.
In evaluating your case, your attorney will want to review any employer documentation that's available. This typically includes your employee file and any documentation referring to the reasons for your termination. If you were terminated for poor performance, your attorney will want to review any documents related to your performance during your employment and up until your termination. Performance reviews and employment evaluations are important in determining whether you were treated differently than other employees.
If you were consistently rated highly during your employment but were fired for poor performance, your employer may have been covering for an unlawful reason of termination.
Your attorney will likely ask you whether there are witnesses with information relating to your performance and termination. Additionally, you and your attorney will review all relevant documents, employer policies, and employee handbooks.
In evaluating your case, your attorney will consider your financial losses. In a wrongful termination case, damages that a terminated employee may recover include lost pay, lost benefits, possible emotional distress damages, and potential punitive damages. Additionally, if you prevail against your employer you may be entitled to attorney's fees.
Do You Need a Wrongful Termination Lawyer? Find One Near You
If you believe you've been wrongfully terminated, it's important to consult with an attorney. The legal process can be very challenging and your attorney can provide you with expert advice. If you believe you were discriminated against based on a protected status, you'll want to learn more by meeting with an employment lawyer in your area today.
Contact a qualified employment attorney to make sure your rights are protected.