The term “wrongful termination” means that an employer has fired or laid off an employee for illegal reasons in the eyes of the law. Being terminated for any of the reasons listed below may constitute wrongful termination:
The employer cannot terminate employment because the employee is a certain race, nationality, religion, sex, age, or in some states, sexual orientation. For more information, see our page on discrimination law.
An employer cannot fire an employee because the employee filed a claim of discrimination or is participating in an investigation for discrimination. This “retaliation” is forbidden under civil rights law.
Employee’s Refusal to Commit an Illegal Act:
An employer is not permitted to fire an employee because the employee refuses to commit an act that is illegal.
Employer Not Following Own Termination Procedures:
Often, the employee handbook or company policy outlines a procedure that must be followed before an employee is terminated. If the employer fires an employee without following this procedure, the employee may have a claim for wrongful termination.
An employee may not be terminated in violation of oral and written employment agreements.
Collective Bargaining Agreements:
An employee may not be fired in violation of labor laws, including collective bargaining laws.
Some of these violations carry statutory penalties, while others the employer to pay damages based on the terminated employee’s lost wages and other expenses. Certain wrongful termination cases may result in the payment of punitive damages to the terminated employee, while other cases may carry the prospect of holding more than one wrongdoer responsible for damages. An employment law attorney review the facts of your particular case, and can give you expert advice on whether or not you may have a valid wrongful termination claim.
Most employees, except those working under an employment contract or a collective bargaining agreement, are considered to be “at-will” employees. This means that the employee may be fired for almost any reason or for no reason. It also means that the employee is free to quit his job without legal consequences.
Although an at-will employee may have a cause of action against an employer who fires her in violation of state or federal law (i.e. anti-discrimination laws, whistleblower protection laws), the employee usually has no legal recourse for being fired, even if the firing was unfair or unwarranted. Because of this harsh result, many states have begun to chip away at the at-will doctrine, providing limited causes of action for wrongful termination, even where the firing did not violate a specific state or federal law. These actions, though they do not do away with at-will employment, allow employees to recover damages against employers who act in particularly egregious ways. This is a complex area of employment law, and only an experienced attorney will be able to advise you whether you have an actionable case.
There are two main theories under which at-will employees sometimes recover in wrongful termination actions: violation of public policy and breach of implied good faith and fair dealing.
Violation of Public Policy
Although an employee who is discharged because of his or her race, sex, religion, national origin, or disability, for example, will have a remedy against an employer under state and federal statute, some violations of public policy are not clearly spelled out by statute.
In cases where an employer clearly violates an important public policy in firing an employee, most states will allow the employee to recover against the employer in a wrongful termination action. In such cases, punitive damages, in addition to back pay or front pay, may be awarded.
Examples of public policy violations that often result in recoveries by terminated employees include:
- Firing an employee for refusing to violate the law
- Firing an employee for reporting a violation of the law by the employer that could or did harm the public
- Firing an employee for exercising a statutory or constitutional right
- Firing employees because they answered a subpoena or attended a civil deposition.
Breach of Implied Covenant of Good Faith and Fair Dealing
In addition to providing a wrongful discharge remedy when an employer has violated public policy, a fewer number of states allow a wrongful termination claim by an at-will employee based upon the theory of a breach of an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. In such cases, the employee alleges that the employer breached an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing by firing him or her.
Sales employees have been most successful in these actions, often prevailing against employers after showing that they were fired because the employers wanted to avoid paying commissions to them. Similarly, employers who fire employees so that they do not have to pay end-of-year bonuses may also face such a claim. In these cases, the employees are usually entitled to recover the unpaid commissions or bonuses. They are not, however, usually entitled to punitive or other damages.
Procedures for Wrongful Termination
Wrongful dismissal will tend to arise first as a claim by the terminated employee. Many jurisdictions provide tribunals or courts which will hear actions for wrongful dismissal. A proven wrongful dismissal will tend to lead to two main remedies: reinstatement of the dismissed employee, and/or monetary compensation for the wrongfully dismissed. A related situation is constructive dismissal, in which an employee feels no choice but to resign from employment for reasons imposed by the employer. If you believe you have been wrongfully terminated from your job, contact an employment attorney now to discuss your legal options.
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