You’ve been fired or laid off from your job, and the cause for your dismissal either wasn’t given, or didn’t seem justified under the circumstances. As an at-will employee, does it matter? If so, how should you proceed? If not, what other recourse can you seek? What circumstances are viable reasons to seek legal counsel?
The main purpose for getting legal help is to protect your rights against wrongful termination. A labor law firm can help you to gather the evidence needed to establish your case, and determine whether your dismissal was for cause or violated your rights. Even in at-will employment, an employer may not discharge an employee on the basis of discrimination.
Wrongful discharge refers to any termination of employment for reasons that are either illegal or in violation of a contract or company procedure. That’s a general definition, although the reasons can vary greatly depending on the circumstances involved in your dismissal. If you believe that you’ve been wrongfully terminated from your job, here is a checklist of conditions to look for to determine whether you get legal help.
Anti-discrimination law violation
Federal law protects U.S. citizens from employment discrimination. It is unlawful to discharge or penalize an employee on the basis of the employee’s race, religion, gender, age, color, national origin, disability, or pregnancy.
Your dismissal may also be in violation of state laws where you work, regardless of whether your employment is at-will. Even under an at-will relationship, where employers or employees may terminate the relationship at any time for any reason, that reason may not violate federal, state, or local statutes. An employer is still obligated to abide by the law and any contractual or collective bargaining agreement, whether or not termination was for cause.
If you were hired under contract and your termination violates terms of your contract, you may have grounds for a wrongful discharge claim. Also, if your employer has terminated you without following established procedure for disciplinary action, this too can be grounds for a claim.
For example, you are reprimanded for an attendance issue and are subsequently fired. Company policy is to issue an employee a verbal warning, followed by a written warning for additional incident, then termination. You’ve been fired without each of those steps being taken first. This can be argued to represent a breach of employment contract.
It is against the law for an employer to take punitive action, including dismissal, against an employee for any actions taken by the employee that are protected by law. Such actions can include lodging complaints or reporting safety violations.
Protected time off
Conversely, it is considered wrongful dismissal when an employee is fired for taking time off to participate in any activity protected by law. For instance, employers cannot terminate employees who serve jury duty, perform military service, vote or engage in union activities on company time.
Quid pro quo termination
This is a form of sexual harassment. In this instance, an employer makes the employee’s continued employment contingent upon accepting sexual advances, engaging in sexual activity, or allowing unwanted sexual harassment to continue in exchange for job security.
What’s at stake
Wrongful termination cases commonly involve more than the loss of employment, which is high enough stakes. In addition to loss of pay (back pay), you may also be entitled to reinstatement, a lost promotion, punitive damages and more.
If you believe you’ve been wrongfully discharged by your employer, contact an attorney experienced with labor laws in the state of your employment. A wrongful dismissal involving discrimination should be reported also to your local EEOC office for investigation. You will need to file a claim within 180 days, up to 300 days under certain conditions.