What Are Wrongful Termination Laws?

Wrongful termination laws are regulations designed to determine whether the firing of an employee was an illegal action by an employer and the rules governing remedies for arbitrated claims. It is common for individuals to believe their employment termination was wrongful - especially in cases when it comes without a cause. A fired employee can bring a claim against a former employer if it is believed the company acted unlawfully in its decision.

What Are Illegal Reasons for Termination?

If an employee gets terminated due to his or her disability, race, religion, gender, or ethnic background the employer is directly violating federal anti-discrimination laws. An employee can get wrongfully terminated as the result of a contractual breach. It is illegal to fire a person as a form of sexual harassment. A company makes a wrongful termination when it is in violation of labor laws. An employer cannot legally fire an individual if he or she institutes a legal complaint against the company. Also, if an employee becomes a whistleblower - bringing to the forefront a company's wrongdoing - it is unlawful for the employer to terminate the worker in retaliation.

What Happens Next Following a Wrongful Termination?

An individual may have a right to declare a claim if he or she has been fired or laid off recently and has firm conviction that the former employer has wrongfully terminated him or her. There may be legal remedies available to the person, which could include money damages for lost wages and other expenses. Some violations of wrongful termination laws carry with them statutory penalties.

The employer may be responsible for paying punitive damages to the former employee in some cases. In other situations, there may be the prospect of making multiple offenders accountable for damages. Alternatively, if there has not been an official release of the employee from the company yet, it is possible for a proper severance package, inclusive of sufficient compensation, to be negotiated.

Bringing an action against a former employer for belief in the occurrence of a wrongful termination can involve complicated legal proceedings and be an all-around challenging time for the terminated employee. Therefore, it may be in his or her best interests to seek consultation with an attorney because the lawyer can evaluate the circumstances surrounding the termination, inform the individual of options available, and advise how best to proceed with the claim.

What Should I Do or Avoid Doing After Getting Fired?

It is important if you have experienced a wrongful termination, that your counter actions, decisions, and behavior stray from being instinctively negative toward your former employer. Other advice to consider following your termination are:

  • Ask to have a look at your personnel file.
  • Reach out to an employee's rights attorney for representation and guidance.
  • Investigate who was responsible for the decision to fire you.
  • Inquire about the employer's justifications for terminating you.
  • Make a request and negotiation for a severance package.
  • Approve in writing any confirmations and negotiations related to your severance and termination.
  • Assess all promises your employer made to you and put together any evidence verifying what was guaranteed.
  • Familiarize yourself with agreement provisions in your employment contract if you have one.
  • Be sure to comply with any regular post-employment procedures and give back all property belonging to the company still in your possession.
  • Do not let yourself get affected by anyone's attempts to elicit intimidation.

Wrongful Termination May Come With a Severance Package

It is not a requirement of the employer to award a terminated employee with a severance payment. However, if an employment contract explicitly says the worker should get it or if in the employee handbook there is an indication of a company policy where it is required, the employer must give one.

If there is no documented guarantee that the company must grant severance pay, an employee may be able to negotiate for one in exchange for an agreement by the worker to waive all legal claims he or she has issued against the company. If it makes more sense to continue with the wrongful termination claim than accepting a severance package, a lawyer would be the best adviser of this, as the attorney will be able to clarify your best options.

There Should Be a Strategic Approach to Severance Negotiations

If after consulting with your lawyer about the best course of action following your termination, you and your attorney determine that it would be more beneficial to pursue a severance package, you want to have a plan.

Here are a few tips that may help you leading up to and during the negotiating process:

  • Remain calm when you get terminated.
  • Avoid automatically accepting the first offer the employer gives.
  • Request to have a confirmation of any terms in written form.
  • Give yourself adequate time to consider thoroughly the offers presented by the employer.
  • Do not accept a proposal that asks you to resign instead of getting terminated, if possible.
  • Be certain that a contingency on reprised employment is not a part of your severance package.
  • Include in your negotiations a provision that will allow you to continue receiving dental and medical coverage during your compensation period.
  • Make attempts to have the employer keep you active on the payroll for as long as you can.

Differences Between At-Will Employment and an Employment Contract Are Significant

In the U.S., most employees in the workforce are hired to work at-will, unless, there is a contract between the company and employee stating otherwise. The personnel handbook typically will say that employment is at-will. The employer has the right to fire an at-will worker for any legally acceptable reason or no reason at all.

Even though a company can fire an at-will employee without indicating a purpose, in many cases, employers choose to give a reason which would make the termination "for cause." In no instances, however, despite easy employee dispensability, is at-will employment a solicitation for terminating someone for an unlawful motive.

An employment contract comes with specific provisions that an employer must continue to comply with even in the event an employee gets fired. The employer cannot terminate a worker's employment for any reasons outside of those included in the list of reasons detailed in the contractual agreement.

Although most employees do not have written contracts of employment, it is not something uncommon. If an employee is fortunate enough to have one, a company firing him or her beyond the limits of the agreement is an illegal offense, as it is a breach. An attorney can review a worker's contract to determine whether an agreement contemplates a stated reason for termination.

Alternatively, a company's policies may outline the discipline protocol. If so, a contract then becomes implied. Therefore, if an employer fails to follow the policies in place when firing a worker, this too constitutes an unlawful contractual breach.

Differential Treatment Can Lead to a Wrongful Termination

Were you fired for a stated reason regarding performance problems on the job? If you are bringing a claim and are working with a lawyer, your attorney would have exceeding interest in knowing if other employees also got fired because of the same stated problems with performance. If this is not the case and you were the only one to have the unfortunate outcome of termination, your lawyer may look for evidence that may suggest you were treated differently based on sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity, race, or disability which all are legally-protected statuses.

If your attorney finds proof that the employer's stated reason for your termination is false, the false statement from then on will get referred to as a "pretext." The company used the excuse as a cover up for the unlawful, real motive.

What Kind of Evidence Will the Lawyer Need?

When an attorney is evaluating your case, he or she will need to review any available employer documentation. Any papers that refer to your termination and your employee file with the company is enough to get started. Additional requirements for assessment of your case may also include a review of employee handbooks and written outlines of the employer's policies.

For cases set on arguing the validity of the company's poor performance claims, your lawyer will probably like to exam any documents that report a rating of how you did on the job up until the time you were released. Evaluations and reviews are critical in helping to prove differential discipline and treatment compared to your former co-workers. It is also likely that your attorney will ask if any witnesses may have relevant information to your performance and termination.

Damages Will Be Carefully Considered

An important component that will probably receive a high consideration by your lawyer is any financial losses that ensued by you getting fired. Damages may be recoverable under wrongful termination laws. Your attorney may seek that reparations get awarded for:

  • Potential punitive damages
  • Lost wages
  • Damage from possible emotional distress
  • Missed benefits
  • Attorney's fees

A Closer Look at the "Employment At-Will" Doctrine

A " good faith and fair dealing" provision has tempered the employment at-will doctrine in some jurisdictions of the United States. The purpose is to discourage and prohibit employers from using an employee's at-will status unjustly by taking advantage of the right the company holds to terminate an employee without expressed cause. An example of this would be an employer firing a worker to avoid having to pay him or her a bonus right before it is due to him or her.

An important element regarding the employment at-will doctrine is that in some cases it is merely a presumption. A presumably at-will employment relationship can get overcome in the presence of evidence that neither the employer or employee, for example, had the freedom from needing to provide just cause to end the job.

Any written contracts between the company and worker with provisions expressing conditions and terms of the employment supersede the at-will doctrine, but sometimes only verbal statements get made on the subject.

As mentioned above, documents distributed to the employer setting forth company policies regarding termination, along with employee handbooks, may unintentionally create an implied contract. They must implicate the at-will doctrine to validate presumptions. Otherwise, the documents could legally secure an employee's job under some circumstances. Similarly, verbalized statements of employment may create a contract that by operation of law, could justifiably get relied upon by the employee as a promise to a continued state of employment.

Public Policy May Provide Some Employment Protection

To terminate a worker for causes recognized by society as illegitimate grounds is an illegal violation of public policy. However, most courts will only allow a wrongful termination claim for reasons of an employer violating law and order if there is an existing law explicitly setting out the policy.

Many federal and state laws have defined various employment-related actions that defy public policy. Some examples of termination offenses include firing a worker for:

  • Whistle-blowing or informing authorities about a harmful wrongdoing by the employer
  • Disclosing how a company refuses to compensate employees for earned vacation pay or accrued commissions
  • Taking off from work for jury duty
  • Serving in the National Guard or military
  • Being absent from work to vote
  • Volunteering as a firefighter
  • Election officer service
  • Reporting an Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) violation
  • Filing a claim for workers' compensation
  • Refusing to provide false information to government auditors

To generalize the above list, for infringement of public policy, a terminated employee may have a claim if he or she got fired for:

  • Reporting an employer has had illegal conduct
  • Refusing to take part in an action that breaks the law
  • Exerting a legal right or privilege

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