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Wrongful Termination Attorneys

Wrongful Termination: What is it, and Do I Need A Wrongful Termination Lawyer?

Have you been fired from a job for questionable reasons? If so, a wrongful termination attorney may be able to help you build a case against your employer. Laws and agency regulations protect certain employees from being fired without cause. You may be able to reclaim your job or seek damages. 

In this short guide, you’re going to learn what wrongful termination is, what protections you have, and what steps you can take if you believe your termination was unlawful.

 

Table of contents

  • What is wrongful termination?
    • Do wrongful termination laws vary by state?
  • What acts may qualify as wrongful termination?
    • Violations of laws requiring due cause or notice
    • Violations of federal laws against discrimination
    • Violations of federal laws against retaliation
    • Breaches of employment contract
  • What evidence should be preserved to prove unlawful firing?
  • What should I do after a wrongful termination?
    • Step 1: Gather evidence
    • Step 2: Speak to an employment lawyer
    • Step 3: File an EEOC complaint or move forward with a lawsuit
  • Is it time to speak to a wrongful termination attorney?

 

What Is Wrongful Termination?

Wrongful termination refers to the firing of any employee for reasons that are illegal or in breach of an employment contract. Whether or not a termination is wrongful is a complicated question. The answer may come down to the state you live in and the evidence that you can present.

Do wrongful termination laws vary by state?

Yes, wrongful termination protections do vary by state. State laws may provide additional protections against termination or allow employees to be fired more easily.

The factor most likely to impact your case is whether you live in a state with at-will employment laws. At-will employment laws permit employers to dismiss employees without establishing the cause – meaning employers may fire workers for any reason, or for no reason at all, so long as the reason is not one of a few that are legally prohibited. 

Most states, including the following, currently have at-will employment laws on the books:

    • Alabama
    • Florida
    • Georgia
    • Louisiana
    • Nebraska
    • New York
    • Rhode Island
    • Texas

If you live in an at-will employment state, it may be more difficult for you to pursue an unlawful termination case. However, that doesn’t mean justice is out of reach.

While an employer does not have to provide a cause for termination in states with at-will employment, they may still be bound by contracts and certain state and federal regulations that limit the reasons for which employees may be terminated.

What Qualifies as Wrongful Termination?

Most unlawful terminations fall into one of the four following categories:

  • Violations of laws requiring due cause or notice
  • Violations of federal laws against discrimination
  • Violations of federal laws against retaliation
  • Breaches of employment contract

Let’s look at each of these circumstances in more detail.

Violations of laws requiring due cause or notice

Federal laws do not require that employers provide cause for firing. However, many states have laws on the books that protect employees from being fired for certain grounds. 

For example, in Missouri, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and several other states, employers may not terminate employees for responding (during work hours) to emergencies as members of a volunteer EMS service. 

Some states, such as Minnesota, require that employers provide a genuine reason for why an employee was fired if the request is made within 15 working days of termination. 

Additionally, certain states—even some at-will employment states—require employers to provide a notice of separation. As of 2020, those states include: 

    • Arizona
    • California
    • Connecticut
    • Georgia
    • Illinois
    • Louisiana
    • Massachusetts
    • Michigan
    • New Jersey
    • New York
    • Tennessee

The information included in this notice must be consistent with the true reason for separation (discharge, layoff, or voluntary resignation). Errors or omissions in this notice may serve as evidence for an unlawful termination.

Violations of federal laws against discrimination

Major federal laws, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, The Americans With Disabilities Act, and the Family and Medical Leave Act, protect employees against being terminated on the basis of specific categories.

There are exceptions based on the size of the business and how many people are employed there, but broadly, employees may not be fired for their:

    • Sex/Gender
    • Race
    • Age (if over 40)
    • Religion
    • Disability
    • Sexual orientation
    • National origin
    • Gender identity and expression
    • Ethnicity
    • Pregnancy

These protections are enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). If you want to file a wrongful termination lawsuit, The EEOC may also be responsible for processing your complaints before you can move forward in the courts.

Violations of federal laws against retaliation

Federal law protects employees from workplace retaliation for certain protected acts. When termination is used as retaliation, it is known as a retaliatory discharge and may violate the law.  

It is illegal to fire employees for engaging in any of the following activities:

    • Reporting illegal discrimination or harassment
    • Reporting workplace safety hazards
    • Reporting violations of wage and labor laws
    • Filing a worker’s compensation claim
    • Requesting reasonable accommodation for a disability or religious practice
    • Taking medical leave
    • Serving on a jury
    • Participating in an official investigation or subpoena against the employer

The EEOC is also responsible for handling your complaints against workplace retaliation. You may not be able to move forward with a court case until you’ve processed your claims through that agency. 

If you think that your termination followed a pattern of retaliation, you are not alone. Claims of workplace retaliation are widespread. In 2017, nearly 50% of the charges handled by the EEOC were claims of retaliation.  

Breaches of employment contract

Employment contracts are legally binding agreements between employees and their employers. These contracts often contain clauses that dictate how and for what reasons an employee may be dismissed.

When a dismissal violates the terms of a contract, it may be considered wrongful termination. 

While defined clauses help prove a breach of contract, employers are still bound to agreements that may not contain them, including:

    • Written contracts: These are documents that spell out the terms of employment. They often define the specific reasons that an employee may be fired. Common examples of fireable offenses include misconduct, felony convictions, or outside events such as the company’s bankruptcy.
    • Oral contracts: These are agreements that are made verbally. Verbal agreements may include promises regarding employment. For example, an employer may promise that the employee can stay for at least a year if they can meet certain sales figures or other metrics. These contracts are still binding, but they are challenging to improve.
    • Implied contracts: Implied contracts, like oral contracts, are not documented. They are derived from assumptions that may reasonably be gathered from the employer’s past statements. For example, if an employer states that employees are only fired for cause, that may be enforced even if it isn’t written down in employee handbooks or contracts. 

Violations of written contracts are some of the most straightforward cases of wrongful termination to prove. In these cases, it may not even be necessary to prove that the firing was not justified—just that the proper procedures were not followed.

While the law describes unlawful firing clearly, proving these accusations can be a serious challenge. If you suspect you may be fired soon or have already been fired, you should immediately preserve as much evidence as you can.

What Evidence should be Preserved to Prove Unlawful Firing?

Even before you file a wrongful termination complaint, you must consider and collect evidence. If you fail to preserve evidence, it may not be available when you’re ready to file your complaint.

Remember, emails, and phone messages can be automatically deleted. Records can be altered, and important witnesses can forget critical details. 

You should attempt to collect and preserve all of the following forms of evidence if you are preparing to claim wrongful termination. 

  • A copy of any contracts or employment agreements
  • A copy of your employee handbook
  • The chain of events that led to your dismissal
  • Performance reviews
  • Emails, letters, and other communications
  • The notice of your termination
  • Paystubs 

It’s essential to understand why these pieces of evidence matter, so take a moment to review how each one can help you prove that you were wrongfully dismissed.

Copies of any contracts or employment agreements

You should retain a copy of your contract or employment agreements because it may contain details that prove your dismissal is invalid. A contract may show that specific dismissal procedures were not followed or that requirements were not met.

Copies of your employee handbook

You should retain a copy of your employee handbook because it can be used to challenge accusations that you violated policies or rules in cases where you are fired for cause. For example, the handbook may contain steps for discipline that were skipped over or ignored.

The chain of events that led to your dismissal

You should create and retain a list of the events that led to your dismissal. This list will help you remember the exact details and may be useful in cases that involve discrimination or retaliation.

A chain of events can also help you narrow down witnesses who may be helpful to your case.

Performance reviews

You should preserve all of your past performance reviews because you can use them to establish a pattern of behavior. If you have a documented history as a high-performing employee, it can be used to challenge firing for cause under certain situations.

Emails, letters, and other communications

You should preserve all emails, letters, and other communications that have passed between you and your employers. These communications may contain details that prove your employer was aware of or angry about your status in a protected class. 

The notice of your termination

You should preserve your notice of termination because the details may matter in some states. It may also be used to prove that your employer has provided conflicting information about why you were terminated.

What Should I Do After A Wrongful Termination?

If you believe that you have been wrongfully terminated, you should collect all of your evidence, speak to a lawyer, and consider an EEOC complaint (a “Charge of Discrimination”).

Step 1: Collect evidence

You should collect evidence first because it may not be available at a later time. Print out all of the relevant documents that you still have access to, and put them in a file. 

If you do not have an employee handbook or list of policies, try asking one of your former coworkers to get copies for you. 

Step 2: Speak to a wrongful termination attorney

It can help to understand what kind of lawyer handles wrongful termination. These lawyers are often called employment lawyers. Or, if they focus on the area of wrongful termination, they may be called wrongful termination lawyers or attorneys.

Speaking to a lawyer is an essential second step, even if you believe that you will need to file a complaint with the EEOC before a suit. An employment lawyer can help you understand all the steps that go into either an EEOC complaint or a lawsuit. Help with drafting and filing a Charge of Discrimination with the EEOC is often part of an employment lawyer’s representation, as this can be critical to your ability to ultimately file a lawsuit. 

Your lawyer will also be able to assess your current evidence and determine if any pieces are missing.

Step 3: File an EEOC complaint or move forward with a lawsuit

If your case involves discrimination or retaliation, you may be required to file a complaint with the EEOC before you can move forward with a lawsuit. This step is referred to as exhausting your administrative remedies. 

This isn’t necessarily an obstacle. If the EEOC finds that your case has merit, they may use their powers to help settle the case in your favor. If the commission finds that your rights were violated, they may issue a determination detailing the basis of their decision, and in rare instances, may be willing to pursue a lawsuit on your behalf. If the EEOC is unable to reach a determination as to whether your employer violated the law, it will issue a Right to Sue Letter. The Right to Sue Letter begins the countdown to your deadline to file a lawsuit, and if a lawsuit is not filed timely your rights will be lost.  

If your case doesn’t fall under EEOC jurisdiction, you may be able to move forward with a lawsuit immediately. 

Is it Time to Speak to a Wrongful Termination Attorney?

Speaking to a wrongful termination attorney is a good idea at any stage of a wrongful termination dispute, even if you are only threatened with termination. 

Termination can be a taxing life event that depletes your savings and damages your reputation in your field. You should take the work of protecting your career seriously. That starts with a consultation with a lawyer who understands employment issues.   

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