Should You Hire a Wrongful Termination Lawyer?

Understand your legal rights if you were wrongfully discharged from employment

By Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on August 28, 2023 Featuring practical insights from contributing attorney Christopher P. Lenzo

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If you were fired from your job and you think it was for an illegal reason, you may have a wrongful termination claim. This article will cover the different types of wrongful termination and options for taking legal action.

Since wrongful termination lawsuits can be very complex, speaking with an experienced attorney is often essential in getting the best outcome in your case. This article will also help you get started in finding the right attorney.

What is At-Will Employment?

Every state has some form of at-will employment. This means that both employer and employee are free to end the employment relationship at any time and for any reason—including no reason at all.

“You could be wearing a white shirt, and your employer could say, ‘Well, we’re firing you because you’re wearing a blue shirt.’ You say, ‘No, it’s a white shirt!’ It doesn’t matter as long as the real reason isn’t one that’s unlawful, such as discrimination or retaliation,” says Christopher Lenzo, an employment law attorney at Lenzo & Reis law firm in Morristown, New Jersey.

One significant exception to at-will employment is wrongful termination, which occurs when an employer fires an at-will employee for a reason that violates federal, state, or local law.

What are the Types of Wrongful Termination?

An employer’s decision to fire an employee could be illegal for several reasons, each of which could constitute a wrongful termination claim.

1. Breach of Contract or Employment Policies

First, you may actually be working under an employment contract. Many contracts are written, but they can also be oral. In the contract, your employer may have made specific promises to entice you to take the job, such as how long the term of employment would last.

Additionally, a contract might explicitly state the reasons why an employee can be fired. If the employer then fires you for reasons not provided in the contract, you might have a good breach of contract claim.

In other cases, your company’s employment policies might explain when someone can be fired or the procedures the company must follow if they discipline or fire someone. Depending on your state, courts may interpret such policies as creating an implied contract for which you can bring a breach of contract claim.

It’s a good idea to review your employee handbook for disciplinary procedures or termination rules to see if your employer followed the correct policies. An experienced employment lawyer can help with this.

You could be wearing a white shirt, and your employer could say, ‘Well, we’re firing you because you’re wearing a blue shirt.’ You say, ‘No, it’s a white shirt!’ It doesn’t matter as long as the real reason isn’t one that’s unlawful, such as discrimination or retaliation.

Christopher P. Lenzo

2. Discrimination

Another major cause of wrongful termination is discrimination.

State and federal laws prohibit discrimination against employees on the basis of various categories, including race, color, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, disability, age, or genetic information.

It is illegal for an employer to fire someone based on one of these legally protected classes. An attorney with experience in workplace discrimination claims can look at the facts of your case and assess whether your employer fired you for discriminatory reasons.

3. Retaliation

A third primary reason for wrongful termination is retaliation. An employer simply cannot fire an employee to get back at them.

There are a few situations when retaliation might come up:

  • Lodging a complaint over working conditions or unlawful activity in the workplace
  • Blowing the whistle on sexual harassment or other illegal activity.
  • Filing a workers’ compensation claim. State laws govern workers’ compensation, but employers are generally required to carry insurance covering potential workplace injuries. Employees who are injured in the course of work can get compensated for medical expenses, emotional distress, lost wages, and lost earning potential.
  • Taking an extended absence. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year to deal with severe medical conditions or sick family members. Many states have their own versions of FMLA that provide additional benefits. Your employer cannot fire you for being absent when taking leave under the FMLA or state law.
  • Other violations of public policy. Employers cannot fire employees for engaging in activities protected by law—such as voting, jury duty, or absence for military service. Many states go beyond federal law in providing legal protections for employees.

What Are My Options for Handling Wrongful Termination?

If you believe you were fired for unlawful reasons, you can file a complaint with your state’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or labor board to investigate the claim.

In many cases, hiring a lawyer with experience in wrongful termination is the best thing you can do. A lawyer can help you assess your situation and strategize the best course of action, from EEOC claims to lawsuits. Wrongful termination can be complex. An experienced lawyer can make a big difference in getting the best outcome.

How Do I Prepare for a Wrongful Termination Lawsuit?

If you are considering legal action for wrongful termination, one of the best things you can do is collect evidence supporting your claims, such as:

  • Your company’s employee handbook;
  • Your contract, if you have one;
  • Performance reviews;
  • Emails or other communications with your employer.

Evidence like this can help a lawyer assess your situation and strengthen your case if you bring a lawsuit.

What Compensation is Available Through a Wrongful Termination Lawsuit?

What do you get if your wrongful termination case is successful?

Lenzo says available remedies vary widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but “usually, the baseline is that employees can recover either lost wages or reinstatement to their job with back pay.”

Damages can also depend on the type of claim you bring. For example, under federal anti-discrimination law, you can get “emotional distress damages and punitive damages for discrimination on the basis of race, gender, religion, national origin, color, or disability—but not for age discrimination.”

However, emotional distress damages are capped depending on the number of employees the employer has, and there is a constitutional cap on the amount of punitive damages an employee can get.

You may also get your attorney’s fees and legal costs covered in a successful discrimination-based lawsuit. It’s important to discuss your state’s laws with an attorney in order to understand what you could get.

I Work Remotely in Another State—Which Laws Apply?

Lenzo points to an important complication in wrongful termination lawsuits for people who work remotely.

“In the day and age of telecommuting and virtual workplaces, say I’m sitting at home in New Jersey and work from home 100 percent of the time, but my supervisor is in Pennsylvania, and the company headquarters is in Illinois. If I get fired, which state’s laws are going to apply?”

Lenzo says that the answer to this question “is far from clear cut and depends on a lot of fact-specific circumstances,” such as who made the adverse employment decision or where the decision took effect.

If you work remotely and have experienced wrongful termination, this complication makes speaking with an attorney even more worthwhile.

Find an Experienced Wrongful Termination Attorney

If you’re a victim of wrongful termination and curious about what your legal options are against your former employer, getting legal advice early on is essential.

An employment attorney with experience in wrongful termination can help you understand your state’s wrongful termination laws and assess your case. Many attorneys provide free initial consultations to hear the facts of your case and for you to determine if the attorney meets your needs.

Visit the Super Lawyers directory and use the search box to start your search for an experienced wrongful termination lawyer in your area. For more information about this legal area, see our overview of wrongful termination law.

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