Should You Hire a Wrongful Termination Lawyer?
Understand your legal rights if you were wrongfully discharged from employment
on June 21, 2022
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.
Every state has some form of at-will employment. This means that both employer and employee are free to end an employment relationship at any time and for any reason, or for no reason at all.
Employment law attorney Christopher Lenzo gives an example of at-will employment: “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 is not one that is unlawful, such as discrimination or retaliation.”
One significant exception to at-will employment is wrongful termination. Wrongful termination occurs when an employer fires an employee for a reason that violates federal, state, or local law.
So, an employer is not entirely free to fire an employee for any reason. If an employer’s decision to fire you violates the law, you may have a wrongful termination claim.
Types of Wrongful Termination
An employer’s decision to fire an employee could be illegal for several reasons. Each of these reasons could constitute a wrongful termination claim.
Breach of Contract or Employment Policies
First, you may not be an at-will employee. Instead, you may be working under a contract. Many contracts are written, but they can also be oral. Your employer may have made specific promises to get you to take the job, such as how long the employment would last or other conditions.
If you are working under a contract, the contract may explicitly say why employees may be fired. If your employer fired 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 may explain why someone may be fired or the procedures the company must follow if they discipline or fire someone.
Depending on your state, courts may see these employment policies as creating an implied contract. If your employer violated the policies, they might have breached an implied contract with you. In this case, you would have a breach of contract claim.
It's a good idea to check your employee handbook for discipline procedures or termination rules to see if your employer followed the correct policies.
An experienced employment lawyer can help you review your company's policies or determine if you have a contract and what the contract says.
Another major cause of wrongful termination is discrimination.
Federal laws prohibit employers from discriminating against employees because of their race, color, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, pregnancy, 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 categories. An employer might claim they let someone go because of poor job performance or other reasons, such as needing to downsize. This may be true, but if the real reason is discrimination, you have a wrongful termination claim.
An attorney can look at the facts of your situation and help assess whether your employer fired you for discriminatory reasons and the chances of success in a lawsuit.
A third primary reason for wrongful termination is retaliation. An employer cannot fire an employee to get back at them. There are a few situations when retaliation might come up:
- Lodging a complaint. It is illegal for your employer to fire you because you lodged a complaint about working conditions or unlawful activity in the workplace.
- Blowing the whistle. A whistleblower is someone who reports their employer for engaging in illegal activity. You might have reported the unlawful activity of a particular co-worker or supervisor, such as sexual harassment. Or you might have reported that the company was violating other federal or state laws. In either case, your employer cannot fire you in retaliation for reporting their illegal actions in good faith.
- Workers’ compensation claim. Your employer can’t fire you for filing a workers’ compensation claim. State laws govern workers' compensation, but employers are generally required to carry insurance covering potential workplace injuries. Employees injured in the course of work can get compensated for medical expenses, emotional distress, or lost wages and earning potential. Retaliation for filing a claim is illegal.
- 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 the constitution or statute. For example, an employer cannot fire you for voting, jury duty, or if you must be absent for military service. Many states have wrongful termination laws that provide additional protections for employees. A lawyer in your area can help you understand your state’s laws and rights.
Options for Handling Wrongful Termination
If you have been terminated for unlawful reasons, what are your options for fighting back?
If you believe you were terminated for discriminatory reasons, you could file a complaint with your state’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or labor board. When you file a complaint with the EEOC, they will investigate your 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 To Prepare for a Wrongful Termination Suit
If you are considering legal action for being wrongfully terminated, one of the best things you can do is collect evidence supporting your claims. Possible sources of evidence include:
- 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 You Might Get if You Win 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.
Which State’s 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% 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 … depending on a lot of fact-specific circumstances,” such as who made the 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.
Questions for an Attorney
If you are a victim of wrongful termination, you may be wondering what your legal options are against your former employer. Getting legal advice from a wrongful termination attorney is essential.
An attorney with experience in wrongful termination can help you understand your state's wrongful termination laws and assess your situation for possible claims.
Many attorneys provide free initial consultations to prospective clients. These free consultations allow the attorney to hear the facts of your case and for you to determine if the attorney meets your needs.
To see whether an attorney is a good fit, ask informed questions such as:
- What are your attorney fees, and what billing options do you offer?
- How expensive is suing an employer for wrongful termination?
- What is your experience as an employment lawyer?
- What is the statute of limitations on a wrongful termination claim?
- What are my state’s wrongful termination laws?
- What kind of damages could I get in my case?
- What are the chances of a settlement in my case?
Finding the Right Attorney for Your Needs
It is essential to approach the right type of attorney—someone who can give you legal help through your entire case. You can visit the Super Lawyers directory and use the search box to find a lawyer based on your legal issue or location.
If you think you were wrongfully terminated and are wondering about your legal options, consider looking for an employment law attorney.