Everything About Wrongful Termination
Understanding Wrongful Termination
If you have ever been fired from a job, you may have felt that the termination was wrongful. Legally, there can be a profound difference between a termination that felt wrong and a "wrongful termination." Wrongful termination is a legal term used to describe a firing that violated a federal law.
In a working relationship, there is an unwritten agreement that employers will treat employees honestly, fairly, and ethically. Likewise, employees will work honorably, ethically, and in accordance to job expectations. If either the employer fails to adhere to this understood agreement, that does not necessarily constitute a wrongful termination. Before considering action for wrongful termination, answer the question, "Was I terminated for an unlawful reason?"
Know Your Rights
Employment at Will
- American employment laws follow an Employment at Will Doctrine. This doctrine states that either party may end the relationship or change the terms of employment for any reason or for no particular reason without notice unless otherwise expressed (in contract, employee handbook, etc.) or where prohibited by law. Think of it this way...Your employer can't make you come to work. If you want to quit, you can. There may be some procedure which you need to follow such as completing a contract or giving a two-week notice; but you can follow the procedure and quit. Similarly, at will, your employer can let you go. The law does not make your employer keep you on the payroll. If you don't get along with your boss, you can quit. If your boss doesn't get along with you, he can fire you. Either party can stop the employment for any reason or for no reason, provided the motivation is not illegal. This employment arrangement is referred to as Employment at Will.
- Employees of organizations with more than 15 people are protected from wrongful termination. Under federal law, you are protected from firing for a few specified reasons.
- Employers may not discriminate over race, gender, ethnic background, religion, or disability.
Breach of contract
- Employers must honor contracts. Dismissals may not be made before the expiration of a contract or in violation of a contract. Employers may not violate tenure without following specified guidelines.
- Employees are permitted to lodge legal complaints, to be whistleblowers, to take allowable leave, to file for Workman's Compensation, and to exercise union rights.
Participation in protected activities
- Employees are permitted to preform military service, to perform jury duty, to vote, etc.
Refusal to perform illegal acts
- You cannot be terminated for refusing to do an illegal act. For example, wearing protective safety equipment is required for many construction jobs. If the safety equipment is not available, you cannot be forced to work without it or terminated for refusing to work without it.
File Your Claim
Winning a wrongful termination claim can be a complex ordeal. If you are reasonably confident that your employer has acted illegally in letting you go, you may file a claim. Here are some of the steps to filing and claiming.
Stay calm. Stay quiet
- Don't act negatively toward your employer. If you need to talk, find a trusted family member or friend. Avoid venting to colleagues. Write your thoughts in a journal, but don't send emails.
- You need to know your legal rights
. Because of the complexity of employment cases, you will need to understand federal laws, state laws, your contract, your employee handbook, and other documents that would determine if you have a legitimate case.
Determine your "Cause of Action"
- Refer back to the list of federal laws that an employer may not violate in firing. Is your case mostly a case of discrimination, breach of contract, retaliation, participation in a protected activity, or a mandate to perform an illegal activity?
Build your case
- Collect documents. Create a time line. Review computer files. Find who's responsible for your termination.
Consider hiring an attorney
- If you are buried in legal jargon but feel like you have a legitimate case, consider hiring an employment lawyer. (Hiring a lawyer can be done at any step in the process.) It is your lawyer who takes your case and formulates legal arguments.
File your complaint
- The first place to file your complaint is with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
. Typically, you cannot file a civil lawsuit until you have exhausted your options with the EEOC. You may use a lawyer to help you file or file by yourself. In most situations, the filing has a short statute of limitations -- just 180 days. The complaint may be filed in person or by mail. The commission will notify the employer within 10 days.
Evaluate results of claim
- The EEOC may offer mediation. Mediation involves the employer and employee sitting down with a professional mediator to reach a voluntary agreement. A signed mediation agreement is enforceable in court. The mediation typically takes 3-4 hours and has no cost to the employer or employee.
- The EEOC may determine that your case warrants an investigation. The full investigation may take up to 6 months.
Dismissal with Notice of Right to Sue
- The EEOC may determine that your case lacks substantial evidence or that it is outside their jurisdiction. They may then dismiss the case and with their dismissal grant you the Notice of Right to Sue. At this point, you are free to pursue the case in civil court.
Consider need for further action
- You can weigh the options offered by the EEOC. Intervention by the EEOC may be enough to prompt your employer to offer a settlement with agreeable terms. You may be reinstated, given future or back pay, given a promotion, payment for damages, or a satisfactory severance package. If negotiations break down, you may opt to sue.
And finally...move on. The resolution, whether satisfactory or not, is now in the past. You don't want getting fired from a job to have a negative impact on the rest of your life. Muster your confidence. Learn from your experience. Move on to your next opportunity!