Sometimes your boss’ reason for firing you doesn’t make sense. You suspect there's an ulterior motive behind her stated reason. Perhaps you're let go shortly after you complained about sexual harassment. Maybe you were fired after asking for accommodations for your disability.
Every year, tens of thousands of employees are fired for reasons that may qualify as wrongful termination. Wrongful termination is when an employer violates a federal, state or local law when they fire an employee. Such firings open the employer up to a possible lawsuit.
This rundown explains the types of wrongful termination you may encounter throughout your working life. But first, a word on why wrongful termination doesn't apply in most circumstances.
Most jobs across the United States are considered at-will employment. This means that if an employer decides to let you go, they can do so without supplying a justification. There are exceptions — spelled out in detail below — but at-will employment is a key concept that will apply in most firings. You don’t even have to sign anything — it’s assumed.
There are three primary situations in which at-will employment wouldn’t apply:
- A written contract or guideline in your employee handbook that guarantees your job security. This is rare, though not unheard of.
- There’s an implied promise in your employer’s speech and actions that indicate you won’t be fired without good cause. This is tough to prove in court because employers are very careful to not make such promises. However, if you have emails of your supervisor guaranteeing continued employment or similar verbiage on your performance reviews, you may have a case.
- Most of the time, if you belong to a union, you can only be fired for just cause. If you believe your termination wasn’t just, you can seek redress through a union representative.
With the above points stipulated, it’s still hard to prove that your firing was improper. Many lawsuits fail. In a typical case, an assistant baseball coach fired by the College of Charleston sued the college for wrongful termination — and lost. He had his case dismissed by a federal judge because, as an at-will employee, he "may be terminated at any time, with or without cause, except as otherwise prohibited by law."
Just because you’re an at-will employee, however, doesn’t mean your firing wasn’t illegal. As explained in the subsequent sections, there are several reasons someone may bring a wrongful termination lawsuit against an employer.
Types of Discrimination
The relationship between employers and workers changed dramatically in 1964. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibited discrimination against employees on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin and religion.
Since then, several pieces of legislation have protected additional categories. The Americans With Disabilities Act made it illegal to fire an employee based on their disability. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act includes protections for workers who are 40 years and older.
Kelly Armstrong, a California-based employment attorney, says, "[Wrongful termination] occurs when an employer terminates an employee who is in a protected group based on that protected status."
The numbers are striking. In the fiscal year 2018, 24,655 cases of alleged sex discrimination were filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), as were 24,605 cases based on disability and 24,600 based on race.
Here’s a full list of protected classes at the federal level:
- Equal Pay/Compensation
- Genetic Information
- National Origin
- Sexual Harassment
If you believe you were fired because you belonged to one of the categories above, you would start by filing a complaint with the EEOC.
The EEOC will investigate your claims. If they decide your employer discriminated against you — and the employer refuses to reach an agreement — they may file a lawsuit on your behalf.
Every week, workplace discrimination cases make the news. Walmart alone has been the center of multiple discrimination suits. In addition to cases involving age discrimination and disability discrimination, they were recently forced to pay out $14 million in a class action lawsuit for denying pregnant workers the same rights as similarly-situated workers.
The limits of such laws are regularly tested. A judge in Michigan upheld Walmart’s firing of a man who used medical marijuana to treat an inoperable brain tumor. The judge wrote that if the plaintiff were victorious, it would mean that "no private employer in Michigan could take any action against an employee based on an employee's use of medical marijuana. This would create a new protected class in Michigan and mark a radical departure from the general rule of at-will employment in Michigan."
In addition to federal protected classes, each state has their own. In Delaware, for instance, volunteer firefighters and emergency personnel can’t be fired for activity related to these roles, and several states protect gender identity and sexual orientation.
What About Retaliation?
Retaliation is the most frequently alleged form of workplace discrimination, making up 51.6 percent of all charges filed with the EEOC in fiscal year 2018. This law prohibits employers from retaliating against applicants or employees from partaking in "protected activities," such as:
- Filing or being witness to an EEOC charge, complaint, investigation or lawsuit.
- Talking with a manager or supervisor about employment discrimination.
- Answering questions during an investigation of alleged harassment.
- Resisting sexual advances.
Cases involving retaliation regularly make the news. Here are a few recent examples:
- An African American man in Colorado alleges he was fired after complaining about a noose hanging in his workplace.
- A Bakersfield-based company specializing in grape stock was charged by the EEOC for refusing to rehire a class of workers after they filed complaints about receiving unequal treatment compared to non-Filipino employees.
- Two female Piggly Wiggly employees got a $50,000 settlement after they were fired for reporting sexual misconduct in the workplace.
Retaliation for whistle-blowing falls into this category as well. Recently, the former senior vice president of global finance for Juul brought a suit against the e-cigarette manufacturer after he was fired for voicing concern when the company refused to recall contaminated products.
Additional Types of Wrongful Termination
There are several other ways you may be wrongfully terminated. Here are a few key possibilities:
- Duty of good faith and fair dealing. This means that your contract with your employer should be upheld with good faith and fairness on both ends. This promise can be broken in many ways. For example, if an employer repeatedly gives you undesirable or dangerous assignments that eventually force you to quit, you may have a suit on your hands.
- Fraud. If you were deliberately tricked by your employer when you were fired, you may have a wrongful termination suit. Keep in mind, it can be difficult to prove intent.
- Other public policy violations. Employers can’t fire someone for a reason that violates a local, state or federal law. For example, a majority of states laws that say employees can take time away from work to vote.
Again, if you suspect you were let go for a discriminatory reason — and have the evidence to prove your case — file a complaint with the EEOC. That’s the first step in the right direction. Meanwhile, you should dust yourself off and start networking, reorganizing your finances, and writing new resumes and cover letters.