Do you know what it means to be "wrongfully discharged" from employment? Do you know that there are many, many things employers can do to perhaps inadvertently expose themselves to a wrongful discharge suit? Do you know the steps that must be taken to bring a wrongful discharge claim? Do you know that employees can receive many different types of damages if they have been wrongfully discharged? Here are ten important points to keep in mind when considering a wrongful discharge lawsuit:
1. At-Will Employment and its Limits
Employment is considered "at-will" under the laws of most states, which means your employer may fire you (and you may quit) for any reason or no reason at all. However, any termination (including "constructive dismissal," in which the employee is forced to quit) that violates anti-discrimination laws or contractual obligations, or which is done as retaliation, is illegal.
2. Anti-Discrimination Laws
Employers may not take adverse actions (including termination) against employees on the basis of any protected characteristic, such as race/color, gender, national origin, religion, age, pregnancy, or disability. In addition to these federal laws prohibiting discrimination, many states also prohibit discrimination against people on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity, immigration status, and other identifiers. Some states also expand on existing federal protections.
3. Contractual Obligations
If you have signed an employment contract, your employer is bound by those terms. And even if you haven't signed a contract, your employer still may be obligated to honor verbal promises (an "implied" contract) if they fail to honor them. For example, let's say you signed a contract stating that you will perform certain duties for the employer for a minimum of six months; at the end of the period, the employer will decide whether to keep you longer. If you are fired before six months, you may be able to file a wrongful discharge and breach of contract claim.
4. Whistleblower Retaliation Claims
Depending on the laws of your state (some states only protect public employees), you may be protected against employer retaliation in the event that you report an illegal or unethical act by your employer. For example, a school district that fires a teacher who "blows the whistle" on wasteful spending or unsafe school conditions cannot be fired as retaliation under whistleblower statutes protecting public employees.
5. Retaliation for Failing to Perform Illegal Acts
Similar to whistleblower protections, employers may not demand employees perform illegal acts (or knowingly require workers to ignore safety regulations, for example). If you refuse to work a double shift at a factory -- knowing that it violates wage and hour laws -- and are subsequently fired, you likely may file a retaliation and wrongful discharge claim.
6. Protected Time Off
Federal and some state laws, primarily the Family and Medical Leave Act, allow for unpaid leave to care for a family member or recover from illness. This law also covers military service members who are called into duty. Employees also may not be fired or retaliated against for taking time off to vote or serve on a jury.
7. Disciplinary and Termination Policies
Even in states with "at-will" employment laws, employers must follow any written policy for disciplinary procedures and terminations (often included in the employee handbook). For instance, a written policy that employees get two warnings for being late before they're fired must be followed. An employee fired after just one warning may have a valid claim for wrongful discharge.
8. Claim Procedure Considerations
Even if you have every reason to believe your termination was unlawful, whether it involves discrimination or retaliation, you may not be able to file a civil claim right away. Most federal complaints, for instance, must first be filed as "charges" with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). State laws often have similar requirements.
9. Damages Available in Wrongful Discharge Claims
Depending upon the situation, damages available to wrongfully discharged employees can include back pay, promotion, reinstatement, front pay, compensatory damages, required reasonable accommodations, injunctive relief, punitive damages, and attorneys' fees.
10. Legal Representation
Given the myriad of ways in which an employer can wrongfully discharge an employee, the number of reasons (whether legal or not) that an employer may give for discharging an employee, and the significant damages that may be awarded, it is a good idea for both a terminated employee and an employer to retain counsel. An experienced attorney can help sort out the various issues and protect the rights and reputations of their client, whether the client is the employee or the employer.
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Losing your job can be a very emotional experience. Perhaps you are angry, frustrated, or even worried about your future. But what if your termination was wrongful under the law? If you've read this article and have additional questions about whether you were wrongfully discharged, you can get those questions answered by an experienced employment attorney. Begin the process with a free case review at no obligation.
Contact a qualified employment attorney to make sure your rights are protected.