What is wrongful termination? With examples

Last updated: July 17, 2024
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Eleana Bowman
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What is wrongful termination? With examples
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Lost your job? If your employer has let you go unfairly, you may have a case for wrongful termination.

Before you take the next steps, knowing your rights is important. In many workplaces, employers can fire team members without a valid reason. And starting a legal claim requires evidence.

We've put together some common examples to help you decide if you’ve been a victim of wrongful termination. This article will cover various areas, including discrimination, contracts, and politics.

After reading this guide, you can determine whether you have a case for wrongful termination.

What is wrongful termination

In the United States, the unemployment rate is still low at 3.7%. Even though workers have more options, it doesn't mean all jobs are secure.

If you live in an at-will employment state, your employer doesn't need a good reason to fire you. However, there are labor laws that protect employees from being fired unfairly.

The rules can vary depending on where you live and your circumstances. If your manager has fired you illegally, you may have a case for wrongful termination.

For example, discrimination is illegal across the country. If there is potential discrimination, it needs to be investigated.

If you think you've been treated unfairly or your employer has broken the law, see if your company has an appeals process. If you are successful, you may get your job back or receive compensation.

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Remember: it's always a good idea to seek legal advice from someone who knows your local laws.

What are common examples of wrongful termination?

Not sure if your boss has the right to let you go? Here are a few common examples of wrongful termination.

1. Constructive dismissal

Constructive dismissal, or constructive discharge, is a form of wrongful termination. You won't get fired, but the employer will make the workplace so difficult that you'll want to quit.

It's usually a result of a breakdown in the employment relationship. You may even be threatened to be fired if you don't quit.

For example, you may be a victim of bullying, have your wages withheld, or be demoted without cause.

You must prove that the working conditions forced you to leave to claim wrongful termination.

Example of constructive dismissal

Here's an example of constructive dismissal. Let's say you've had your job for five years, and there's been a management change. Your new boss wants to give your job to someone else, even though you have a contract.

They lie about you to damage your reputation instead of breaking the agreement. You don’t get invited to meetings, making it difficult to do your job.

Eventually, the toxic work environment causes you to quit.

2. Sexual harassment

In a three-year period, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received 27,291 reports of workplace sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment is a serious offense, covering things like inappropriate comments and unwanted sexual advances. For example, you may receive explicit text messages, or your manager may look for excuses to touch you.

If you're a victim of workplace sexual harassment and speak up, you can't be fired. It's also illegal to fire someone due to pregnancy.

Example of sexual harassment

How does this look in the real world? Here's an example of wrongful termination based on sexual harassment.

Your manager has been making inappropriate comments about your body. They find reasons to get in your personal space and make sexual advances via text message.

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The behavior makes you feel uncomfortable, so you report the manager. You follow the internal complaint procedure and wait for the investigation process to be completed.

Even though you have evidence to support your claim, the manager isn't disciplined. Instead, you're fired from your job.

3. Breach of contract

Some employees have employment contracts. These documents have everything you need to know about your position. For example, your contact may be for a period with details for pay, hours, and daily duties.

You'll need to follow the conditions of employment. But so does your boss. If you have a contract and the employer breaches it, it may be wrongful termination.

There may be an implied contract even if you don't have a written document. For example, the company may have strict policies about when they can fire people.

Example of a breach of contract

Maybe you have a contract that says you'll be employed for at least twelve months. You do all of your work to a high standard and put in overtime.

And the company has a policy that they give a verbal and written warning before letting someone go. After three months, your boss comes to you without warning and says, "You're fired.”

4. Racial discrimination

Anti-discrimination laws give broad protections to workers. These laws cover a range of areas, including race.

You can't be treated unfairly or differently due to your race. This law also protects you from discrimination due to your skin color and national origin.

If you get fired because of any of these factors, it's illegal. It can be difficult to prove racial discrimination, but there may be signs.

For example, you may ‌be more qualified and experienced, but a junior worker gets the opportunity you’ve been working toward. Or your boss may make racist remarks.

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Racial discrimination allegations should be taken seriously. If your employer doesn't investigate your complaints, it can be worth seeking legal advice.

Example of racial discrimination

What does this look like in the workplace? Put yourself in this scenario. You've been with the company for a few years and working hard toward a promotion.

Your boss has given you positive feedback, and your personnel files show a history of outstanding performance reviews. When it's time to select someone for a promotion, you're overlooked.

The person who gets the job is underqualified and unreliable, and you have reason to believe you only missed out because of your race. To make things worse, you end up getting fired because you're no longer needed.

5. Unpaid wages

Nobody should have to work for free. When you have a job, you can expect to be paid fairly and on time.

Unfortunately, not all managers do the right thing. If you have unpaid wages, you have the right to query this with your employer.

You can't be fired for asking for the money you're owed. Additionally, your boss needs to pay you for any unpaid overtime.

You should have the details of your wages and the payment schedule so you know exactly what to expect.

Example of unpaid wages

Here's an example. You used to receive a regular paycheck with money in your account every two weeks. Work has been busy, and your boss has asked you to take on some paid overtime hours.

For the first month, you receive the extra payments. Since then, your paychecks have been reduced until you stop receiving any money at all. Your boss tells you the money is coming, and you're worried if you complain, you may lose your job.

Eventually, you speak up and get fired.

6. The Family And Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

The Family and Medical Leave Act protects employees who need time off due to medical reasons.

Whether you're sick or you need to care for a child, parent, or partner, you're entitled to unpaid leave. This protection also covers maternity leave.

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Usually, you'll get up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave over a one-year period. However, if you're a service member or caring for someone who is, you'll get up to twenty-six weeks off.

During this period, you'll continue to receive your health insurance benefits. You can't be fired from your role, and your job should be waiting when you get back.

Example of FMLA

Ready for an example? Picture this — one of your parents has a serious fall, and they need someone to take care of them full-time for six weeks.

As their only close relative, you're responsible for their care. This means you need to take time off work to look after them.

You ask your boss for unpaid family and medical leave, but they refuse. They tell you that you'll lose your job if you take this carer's leave.

7. Worker’s compensation claims

If you get an injury in the workplace, you may file a worker's compensation claim. As long as the employer is at fault, you can't be fired for putting in this type of claim.

For example, if the tools you use for your daily duties aren’t maintained properly, and it leads to injury, you have the right to file a worker's comp claim.

On the other hand, if you're drunk at work and this causes an accident, then you can lose your job.

The rules do vary between states, with some locations offering more protection than others. You can still be fired for other reasons, just not for reporting an injury.

Example of worker’s compensation claims

Here's an example from the workplace. Imagine you work in a kitchen, and there's a pipe that's leaking water. It's a result of poor maintenance practices.

You slip and break your leg, and you need time off. So, you file a worker's compensation claim for wages and medical expenses.

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Your boss isn't understanding and doesn't want to deal with the situation. You're fired on the spot.

8. Political beliefs

There are no nationwide laws that protect you against political discrimination. However, some states have their own labor protections, including California and New York.

If you do live in an area where political discrimination is illegal, it means you can't get fired because of your political beliefs. If you vote for a particular party, your manager can’t use it against you.

And your employer can't encourage you to participate in political activity.

Remember, this isn't a consistent law, and even if it's illegal in your state, there still may be loopholes.

This charge of discrimination can also be hard to prove because you may not have proof to back up your claim. It's important to seek legal advice if you're unsure of the rules.

Example of political discrimination

Here's an example scenario. You are really good at your job and feel like you have a future with the company. One day, your boss sees you in the car park, and you have a political sticker on your vehicle.

They ask you if you support that party, and when you say yes, you get a disapproving comment.

The next morning, you're called into the manager’s office and told you’re fired, effective immediately.

What isn’t included in wrongful termination?

While all of the examples above can be cause for a wrongful termination claim, you can still get fired for other reasons.

For example, if you don't have a contract and there are budget cuts, you could lose your job. You can be fired for being late, for not meeting company expectations, or for taking drugs at work.

If you're an at-will employee, your boss doesn't need to justify the decision to let you go as long as it's not illegal. You can also quit at any time without notice.

Your rights and responsibilities in the workplace

Maintaining employment is important. If you work hard and follow company policies, losing your role can come as a shock.

When you have an at-will position, your employer doesn’t need a reason to let you go. But there are times when your dismissal can be called wrongful termination.

We’ve given you some examples of wrongful termination. These include constructive dismissal, sexual harassment, and breach of contract. You can’t be fired due to your race or for speaking up about unpaid wages. And you’re entitled to medical leave and workers’ compensation claims.

In some states, political discrimination is a cause for a wrongful termination claim.

Ready to find a new job? Visit our job board. Additionally, you can find more articles like this one in our resource center.

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