In the absence of an employment contract, an American employee is an employee at will. The employee at will doctrine allows employers and employees the freedom to terminate the employment relationship for good cause or for no cause at all. However, it does not allow the employer to fire an employee for “bad” or “wrongful” cause.
What is “Wrongful"?
Wrongful termination is defined by both state and federal law. Generally, an employee may have been wrongfully terminated if the employee was fired for:
- Discriminatory Reasons: this includes any class protected by law including race, sex, age, national origin and disability. Some states also make it illegal to fire someone based on their sexual orientation.
- Retaliatory Reasons: an employer may not fire an employee for exercising his or her civil rights. For example, if the employee alleges that he or she has been discriminated against and files a discrimination claim with the employer or a state or federal agency, the employee cannot be fired for filing the claim. Similarly, an employee cannot be fired for participating in the investigation of another employee’s civil rights claim.
- Refusing to Break the Law: it is against the law for an employer to require an employee to break the law as part of his or her job and an employer cannot terminate an employee’s job for refusal to break the law; and
- Being a Whistleblower, in certain situations: the law protects whistleblowers from being fired if they report certain activities of their employers through the proper channels. For example, if an employee raises concerns that an employer is breaking environmental laws then the employee maybe protected from losing his or her job if the employee brought the concerns to a supervisor or to an appropriate government agency. However, the employee would not be protected from termination if the employee told a colleague or the media.
Additionally, an employee cannot be fired in violation of any policies and procedures established by the employer. For example, if the employee handbook requires that employees be put on probation for a certain amount of time before being fired for a certain offense then the employer cannot waive the probationary period in violation of its own policies and procedures without the employee’s consent.
The employment at will doctrine allows an employee to leave a job at any time and allows an employer to find the best employees for its business without being legally obligated to continue employing a particular employee. However, the wrongful termination laws place an important qualifier on that right and protect employees from being unfairly and illegally fired for the reasons described above.
If you believe that you have been wrongfully terminated then you may be entitled to compensation under the law. Your potential remedies are defined by state law and may include:
- Back Pay for the time that you were not working after your wrongful termination;
- Reinstatement to Your Job, with reasonable accommodations if necessary;
- Promotion, if a promotion was wrongfully denied you;
- Other Compensatory Damages, including compensation for benefits such as medical insurance that were lost due to wrongful termination;
- Punitive Damages; and
- Attorney’s fees.
Wrongful termination law seeks to strike a balance between protecting employees and allowing employers to fire employees who are not a good fit for their company. If you think that you have been wrongfully terminated it is important to gather as much evidence and to keep as much documentation as possible to support a potential case against your employer.
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