What is Wrongful Termination Law?
When can you sue your former employer over job loss?
on December 15, 2016
Updated on November 15, 2022
Losing your job can be devastating, and it can often feel unfair. Sometimes that unfairness is also unlawful, and you may be entitled to sue your former employer. These instances are called wrongful termination actions, and they might help you get your job back or be financially compensated.
The following is a brief overview of common situations that can form the basis of a wrongful termination claim. You might consider using this information to determine whether you should speak with a wrongful termination lawyer about your case.
Employees are generally presumed to be employed at-will, which means your employer does not need good cause to fire you. At some point in your career, you’ve probably signed a document indicating that you understood it was at-will employment, or you might have been given an employment handbook that lays out, in detail, that you can be let go for any reason.
Even if you are technically an at-will employee, your termination may still be in violation of the law or public policy. For example, your employer may have promised or implied that your employment will continue indefinitely or for a period unless there is good cause to end your relationship. Additionally, your employer cannot fire you for discriminatory reasons or in retaliation. Finally, in some circumstances, your employer may be prevented from firing you without cause because it violates a well-established public policy.
If you have some kind of promise of continued employment for a specific term or a promise that you can only be fired for good cause, then you might not be considered an at-will employee. These promises can be found explicitly in employment contracts, or they can be implied by your employer.
Written promises can take the form of an offer letter that makes promises about continued employment or an employment contract that states you can only be fired for good cause. If you have a similar document that makes these kinds of references, you might not actually be an at-will employee, and you may be able to enforce these promises in court.
If your employer has said or done things that imply an employment agreement of continued employment, you might have an implied employment contract. These implied contracts can be found in promises of “permanent employment” or in employee handbooks that describe a disciplinary procedure that must be followed prior to termination.
While employers are generally free to end the employment relationship for any reason, they are not allowed to end it for discriminatory reasons. Federal laws protect employees from being fired because of their age, disability, gender, genetic information, national origin, race, sex or religion. Some states have chosen to extend these protections to include gender identity and sexuality while other states have determined those characteristics are part of gender discrimination.
You can use direct or circumstantial evidence to prove you were terminated for discriminatory reasons. Direct evidence is the strongest way to show that the decision to fire you was motivated by employment discrimination because it includes statements by your manager and/or supervisor that you are being let go because of your membership in a protected class. However, direct evidence is hard to come by because your managers are likely well-trained and will give you another reason for your wrongful discharge. In these cases, you will need to prove your case with circumstantial evidence.
Cases involving circumstantial evidence will employ a legal method called “burden shifting.” In these cases, you will need to show that you are a member of a protect class, you were qualified for the position and you were replaced by a person who is not a member of your protected class. After you have done this, the court will presume you were fired because of your class membership—unless your employer can satisfy their burden of establishing that you were fired for a legitimate reason. You will then be responsible for showing that your employer’s reason was pretext for discrimination.
Employers generally cannot fire employees as retaliation for engaging in legally protected activities. Examples of protected activities include reporting illegal conduct, requesting reasonable accommodations, filing a workers’ comp claim or complaining about wage-and-hour violations. To be successful, you will need to prove you engaged in a protected activity and that your employer knew about it, and fired you because of it.
Below are some common questions you might want to consider when meeting with an employment attorney for the first time.
- Who can I sue for wrongful termination?
- How do I prove I was fired because of discrimination?
- How do I know if I was fired because I filed a complaint?
- What can I do if I was fired unfairly?
Finding the Right Attorney for Your Needs
It is important to approach the right type of attorney—someone who can help you through your entire case. To do so, you can visit the Super Lawyers directory, and use the search box to find a lawyer based on your legal issue or location.
Why Should I Talk to a Lawyer?
To be successful in your case, you will likely need to interview former coworkers and bosses. You will also want to get copies of your employment records and performance reviews so you can prove there was no other reason for your termination. A lawyer can help you interview these witnesses and get copies of these records, and will also help you evaluate your case and decide on the best course of action.
A lawyer will further be able to anticipate potential problems with your case and advise you on how to approach them. They will also keep track of deadlines and file all the paperwork with the necessary courts and agencies, giving you one less thing to worry about.