Wrongful termination can devastate families and careers, but it doesn’t have to go unchecked. Federal and state laws are in place to address the complexities of wrongful termination cases and to protect employees who have been treated unfairly. Many employment disputes can be resolved without going to court, but when an employee has been unfairly dismissed from their position at work, it may call for the guidance of a competent attorney and careful litigation.

What is Wrongful Termination?

Wrongful termination, also called wrongful discharge, is a legal term used to describe a situation in which an employee is fired as a violation of a written or implied contract, a violation of legal doctrine or public policy or a violation of federal or state law. The term encompasses a wide variety of termination experiences, including being dismissed as a form of retaliation or due to whistleblowing.

Because nearly every state in the United States is an at-will employment state, the issue of wrongful termination can sometimes raise questions. The term ‘at-will employment’ refers to an employer’s right to fire an employee for any reason, with or without cause. The at-will employment doctrine applies except where there has been certain public policy violations or violations of the law.

The at-will doctrine means that an employee can be terminated without any explanation in just about every state. Still, the law steps in to protect workers when the termination violates public policy, runs afoul of certain legal doctrines or when it breaks the law, such as when a person is fired based on discriminatory acts covered in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

How Do I Know If My Termination is Legal or Illegal?

In analyzing the legality of a wrongful termination case, one of the first factors a judge may consider is whether a written or implied employment contract prohibited the termination. A written employment contract may contain certain provision regarding termination with which an employer is obligated to comply in order for the agreement to be valid. When these provisions are violated, an employee could have a good case for wrongful termination.

An implied employment contract arises in the absence of a written agreement. It is usually a determination made by the court based on the conduct and actions of the two parties prior to the onset of employment. Courts will imply that an employment contract exists when, for instance, there is a verbal offer and acceptance that a reasonable person would consider to be a valid agreement.

When an implied contract exists between an employee and an employer, the terms usually deal with a promise of permanent employment or employment that lasts for a specific amount of time. However, many employers are aware that making such promises could mean a forfeiture of their at-will employment rights, and so, are careful not to do so.

What Legal Doctrines Protect Workers from Wrongful Termination?

Beyond violations of the provisions of written or implied employment contracts, wrongful termination cases can hinge on legal doctrines which create exceptions to the at-will employment rule. One such doctrine is called the doctrine of good faith and fair dealing. This describes the duty that employers have of dealing fairly with employees.

Courts have found that the duty of good faith and fair dealing is breached, for example, when an employer terminates an employee based on fabrications or in an attempt to coerce the employee to quit. However, not all courts recognize the good faith and fair dealings exception, and in some courts, it is first necessary to establish that a written employment contract was in place before the exception can be applied.

Another legal doctrine that protects workers from wrongful termination deals with violations of public policy. Public policy is established by societal norms for what is fair and correct in employment dealings. When an employee is fired for reasons that conflict with established societal norms there could be a good case of wrongful termination.

For instance, it is a violation of public policy for an employer to fire someone for taking time off to serve on or jury or to vote. It is also considered a violation of public policy to terminate an employee for submitting information to the authorities regarding unlawful or fraudulent acts by the employer.

What Laws Protect Workers from Wrongful Termination?

Certain laws protect workers from wrongful termination as well. These laws normally protect the civil rights of an employee. For instance, an employer cannot legally fire someone as a discriminatory act or out of retaliation.

Wrongful termination based on discrimination must fall within certain legally protected categories in order to create a successful claim. An employer cannot legally fire someone based on age, race, color, national origin, religion, sex, or disability. When an employee believes he or she has experienced discriminatory termination, a charge must be filed first with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission before heading to court.

Also, an employer cannot terminate employment in retaliation for certain actions from an employee. Many state and federal laws prohibit an employer from firing an employee in retaliation for filing a charge or complaint or participating in a discrimination court proceeding based on the employer’s actions. This prevents the unfair scenario of employers misusing their authority to take revenge on employees who have taken action against them by firing them.

Fraud, Defamation and Whistleblowing

Three more categories of laws protect workers from wrongful termination. Fraudulent termination occurs when an employer makes a false representation which the employer relies on to his or her detriment. Here, the employee must prove that a supervisor or manager knew of the false representation and that the employer intentionally deceived him.

Termination as a form of defamation results when an employer makes false or malicious comments, statements or references to an employee in a way that damages his good standing or reputation. The information must be conveyed to another person and it must be factual and false in order for the case to be successful.

Finally, whistleblower laws protect workers from termination that comes as a result of an employee submitting information to the authorities or making it public knowledge that an employer is engaging in illegal or fraudulent behavior.

If You Think You’ve Been Wrongfully Terminated…

If you think you’ve been terminated wrongfully, the first thing to do is to contact a competent attorney to perform the necessary analysis of your situation. Skilled attorneys at Shegerian & Associates are available to discuss the particulars of your wrongful termination case and ready to provide the assistance you need to get the resolution you deserve. Contact Shegerian & Associates today for quality legal representation you can count on.