What Is Wrongful Termination?

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Were you illegally fired from your job? Most employees in the United States work “at will,” which means they can be fired at any time, for any reason that’s not illegal. However, even at-will employees cannot be fired for illegal reasons (referred to as “wrongful termination”). This article explains some of the exceptions to the at-will rule. If you’re fired for one of these illegal reasons, you may have grounds for a lawsuit against your employer.

Breach of Contract

If you have a written or oral contract with your employer that promises you job security, you have solid grounds to argue that you were not employed at will. In this situation, your employer must comply with the terms of the contract. For example, if you have a written contract stating that you can be fired only for committing a crime, and your employer fires you for poor performance, you may have a strong claim for breach of contract. Similarly, if you and your employer agreed orally that you would be fired only for good cause, and your manager fired you to make room for a friend on the company payroll, you might have a solid contract claim.

Some employment contracts are neither written nor stated explicitly, but instead are implied from the parties’ words, actions, and behavior. For example, if you can show that the employee handbook said employees would be fired only for good cause, and that your performance reviews over a long period of employment were very positive, you may be able to prove an implied contract. Not every state recognizes implied contract claims, and states have their own rules as to the evidence necessary to prove such a contract. For more information, see Implied Employment Contracts.

Discrimination

It’s illegal for an employer to fire someone because of his or her race, color, national origin, religion, sex, age (if the person is at least 40), disability, or genetic information. (These are the federal protections; most states have their own discrimination laws, and some cover additional protected categories, such as sexual orientation.) If you believe you have been discriminated against, you should speak to an experienced employment lawyer right away. There are strict time limits that apply to these claims, and you must file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC or a similar state agency before you can file a lawsuit. See Time Limits for Filing a Charge of Discrimination for more information.

Retaliation

Even at-will employees may not be fired for retaliatory reasons (because they exercised a legal right). To prove retaliation, you must show that:

  • You engaged in legally protected activity, such as taking FMLA leave, complaining about dangerous work conditions, participating in a company investigation of harassment, complaining about workplace discrimination, and so on.
  • Your employer took disciplinary action against you because of your activity. Often, timing is the key here. For example, if you were fired for poor performance immediately after you filed a harassment complaint, and you had no performance problems in the past, that could help you prove that the employer fired you because of your complaint.
  • You suffered a negative job consequence as a result of the employer’s action (for example, you were disciplined or fired).

Find out more about Dealing with Retaliation at Work.

Whistleblowing

Whistleblower protection laws prohibit employers from firing employees who report certain kinds of wrongdoing. Certain safety, environmental and antifraud laws protect employees from being fired for reporting violations. For example, employers may not fire an employee who reports that the employer violated the Sarbanes-Oxley Act or the Dodd-Frank Act.

Violations of Public Policy

It is illegal for an employer to fire someone in violation of public policy — that is, for reasons that most people would find illegitimate or repugnant. Each state has its own rules as to what constitutes a violation of public policy. Often, it will violate public policy if an employee is fired for:

  • exercising a legal right (such as voting)
  • refusing to break the law (by filing false tax returns, for instance), or
  • reporting illegal activity (for example, by reporting price fixing to the government).

Getting Legal Help

Depending on your situation and the laws of your state, there may be additional legal claims you can make against your employer. If you think you were fired illegally, you should consult with an employment lawyer right away. A lawyer can assess your claims, tell you whether you have a case, and help you decide what to do. If you want to pursue your claims, a lawyer can help you try to negotiate a settlement with your employer or file a lawsuit.

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