Your Guide to Wrongful Termination

Last updated: July 13, 2024
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Eleana Bowman
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Your Guide to Wrongful Termination
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Losing your job is never easy. You can be let go for a variety of valid reasons, including budget cuts or performance issues. And, in some workplaces, you can lose your job for no reason at all.

However, there are scenarios where your boss can’t fire you. In fact, it may even be illegal, and you can take it further if you want to.

Wrongful termination laws protect workers and cover a range of areas, such as discrimination, whistleblowing, and unwillingness to perform an illegal act.

If you think you have a case for wrongful termination, keep reading. We’ll explain what wrongful termination is and the steps to take if your employer has fired you unfairly.

What is wrongful termination?

Wrongful termination is when you're fired for an illegal or unfair reason. You may also hear it called unlawful termination or wrongful discharge.

Across the country, many people have at-will employment. Almost every US state has some form of at-will employment, except for Montana. If you do have this type of agreement, your employer can fire you without a reason. They don't have to give you any notice, and you can quit at any time.

Despite this, there are still some instances when firing you could lead to civil penalties. There are multiple laws, and the rules can vary depending on where you live.

For example, your employer can't fire you for discriminatory reasons or to punish you for reporting harassment.

If you are a victim of wrongful termination, you may have the option of getting your job back. Alternatively, if you seek legal advice, you may get financial compensation.

What is at-will employment?

​​As mentioned, most states in the US have at-will employment agreements. Your employer can usually let you go at any time without penalty.

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These arrangements give both workers and managers flexibility. You can also quit at any time, so you can jump on any opportunities that come your way.

It can take time to find new team members, and firing people is usually a last resort. Plus, there are exceptions where it's illegal to fire you.

How do you know if you have this type of employment? If you have an employment contract, then you're not an at-will employee.

Your contract will be legally binding and contain the conditions of employment. It'll have details of your pay, job duties, dress code, and weekly hours.

There are also implied contracts, where the employer has given you a reason to believe your job is safe. For example, if the company has policies that cover warnings and terminations, you can expect your boss to follow these rules.

What does “wrongful termination” cover?

It doesn't matter if you have a contract or if you're an at-will employee. There are times when firing you may be against the law.

Remember, the rules can vary from state to state and even between local areas. To be sure of your rights, make sure you seek legal advice.

Here are some of the reasons you can’t be fired.

Discrimination

There are anti-discrimination laws throughout the US. These laws are overseen and enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

What protections do you get? The anti-discrimination laws cover the following:

  • National origin

  • Color

  • Race

  • Sex

  • Pregnancy

  • Sexual orientation

  • Gender identity

  • Disability

  • Age (40+)

These laws make sure companies have equal-opportunity workplaces.

For example, someone with a health condition can't be treated unfairly. They can't be fired or miss out on a promotion just because they have a disability.

In fact, it's expected the employer will make reasonable accommodations. Whether it's a chair behind the cash register or a modified computer screen, the employee should be supported to do their job.

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What about pregnancy? If you tell your boss you're having a baby, they can't fire you on the spot. And they can't treat you differently because of your national origin, race, color, or gender identity.

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) protects older employees. These laws protect anyone over forty who can't be fired due to their age.

The laws also impact hiring decisions and salaries. When someone is looking to hire, they can't dismiss your application due to discrimination.

Remember, you can still be fired for other reasons, and you'll need evidence that your employer has treated you illegally.

The covenant of good faith

In some states, the covenant of good faith is recognized, even if you have an at-will agreement. These include Alabama, Alaska, Idaho, Massachusetts, Montana, Nebraska, Utah, Wyoming, California, Arizona, and Delaware.

What does it mean? Your employer needs to have a valid reason for letting you go. The company may even have its own termination policies to protect them from wrongful dismissal claims.

For example, a good cause would be if the store you work in has to close. Losing your job can also be tied to your performance. If you've been late for work or missed shifts, that'd be a valid reason to lose your role.

Your behavior at work matters, too. If you harass other team members, are intoxicated at work, or share company secrets, your employer has the right to fire you. And if you commit a crime in the workplace, it could lead to instant dismissal.

But if you've been a valued employee, and the manager fires you after two years without warning, you may have a case.

Retribution

In most states, firing you in retaliation is illegal. You have the right to speak out as a whistleblower and report any issues in the workplace.

Here's an example. Let's say you work as a mechanic, and your manager tries to cut costs by using second-hand parts. They tell customers they're premium new parts and charge a high fee. You think it's dishonest and speak out, and you're fired as a result. Firing you for this reason may be illegal, depending on where you live.

Alternatively, if you're a victim of harassment or bullying and you flag it with the human resources manager, you can't be fired.

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Sometimes, people get injured at work. If this happens, you may file a worker's compensation claim. If your boss threatens to fire you if you make a claim, this would be an illegal act.

Retaliatory discharge is serious, and if you're punished for speaking up, it can have a flow-on effect. Other people may be too scared to do the right thing, and bullies can continue their behavior.

Refusal to commit an illegal act

Even if you have an at-will agreement, your employer can't fire you for refusing to commit an illegal act.

For example, if you work in an accounting office, and your boss asks you to falsify a document, this would be a criminal offense. You can't be fired for saying no to this request. However, it probably isn't a company you'd want to work for.

Your boss can't ask you to drive without a license or do tasks that you aren't qualified for. Firing you under these circumstances would be a wrongful discharge.

And if there is a negative company culture, it may be normal for people in your workplace to harass and bully others. You can't be fired because you refuse to harass your colleagues.

Can you claim wrongful termination if you quit?

There are plenty of valid reasons why you may quit your job. For example, you may have a new opportunity, getting ready to move states, or going back to college.

In these circumstances, quitting your job is a personal choice. If you're an at-will employee, you're free to leave whenever you like.

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However, it can be a wrongful discharge if you feel pressured to quit. If your employer makes it difficult for you to do your job, quitting may be your only option. As an example, you may be left out of meetings, given reduced hours, or be bullied at work.

Your boss may even give you an ultimatum, such as, "Quit or be fired."

Their motivation can vary. Maybe you've spoken up about harassment in the workplace, or your boss may want to replace you with someone else. Regardless of the reason, you should never feel pressured to quit your job.

What to do if you think you’re a victim of wrongful termination

If you think you have a claim for wrongful termination, here are the steps to take.

1. Act quickly

​​If you're fired for an illegal or unfair reason and want to take it further, you'll need to act quickly. Filing a claim is time-sensitive, and waiting could mean you miss out on a positive resolution.

For example, you'll have 180 days to file a discrimination complaint with the EEOC. If there are conflicting state laws, it can be up to 300 days. Once you've filled out an inquiry form, you'll be invited to an interview.

Alternatively, your company may have its own policies. For example, if you want to get your job back, you can write a letter to the human resources department asking for a review.

2. Read the fine print

Make sure you read the fine print to see if you have a case. If you have an employment contract, you can go over the details. You can also look at company policies and your personnel file for clues.

Did you meet all your obligations? For example, did you perform your job duties to a high standard, and did you always arrive at work on time? If you've had previous warnings, you may not have a case.

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If you don't have a contract, you're probably an at-will employee. Do you have reason to suspect you were fired for an illegal reason, such as discrimination or retribution?

3. Gather evidence

Next, you'll need to collect as much evidence as you can. If you want to take the case further, you'll need proof to back up your claim.

The type of evidence will depend on your situation. For example, if you think you have a case for discrimination, you may have text messages or emails with inappropriate content.

You may have a contract that proves your employer has broken the agreement. Or you may have a record of your exceptional work history. You can ask for a copy of your personnel file, which may include details of performance reviews.

Because laws can vary between states, it's a good idea to speak to an expert. You can start with the US Department of Labor, where you'll find contact phone numbers, FAQs, and more.

If you can't resolve the situation, you may need an employment and labor lawyer. Before making a commitment, learn about the process and how much it will cost. Does your lawyer think you have a solid case? What are the potential outcomes?

5. Make a wrongful termination claim

The final step is to submit a legal claim. The process isn't always the same because it depends on the type of claim you're making.

For example, if it's wrongful termination due to discrimination, your complaint will be filed with the EEOC.

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On the other hand, if your employer has breached your contract, the next step would be to file a claim in civil court.

The outcome can vary, but if you're successful, you may be paid damages. Your compensation may cover your lost wages and emotional distress.

Moving on after wrongful termination

If you do lose your job, you may be wondering what to do next. Think about why you were fired and whether it was for an illegal reason.

For example, your employer can’t let you go due to discrimination or as retribution for reporting an incident at work. In some states, there’s a covenant of good faith, which means your boss needs to justify their reason for letting you go. You also can’t be fired for refusing to commit a crime at work.

If you think you’ve lost your job for any of these reasons, you may have a case for wrongful termination. You’ll need to act quickly, and we recommend seeking legal advice if you want to take it further.

Ready for a new position? Head to our job board. We have more articles like this one in our resource center.

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