Have you recently lost your job in Alabama? If so, you might be wondering whether you have grounds for a wrongful termination lawsuit against your former employer. In Alabama, as in other states, employees work at will. This means an employee can be fired at any time and for any reason, or for no reason at all, as long as the reason for firing is not illegal.
But there are some exceptions to the at-will rule. If your Alabama employer fires you for discriminatory reasons, in violation of an employment contract, or in retaliation for exercising your rights, for example, you may have a legal claim against your employer for wrongful termination.
This article covers some of the legal grounds you might have for suing your employer in Alabama for wrongful termination. Laws change, however, and this is not a comprehensive list of Alabama employment rights. To find out whether you have a legal claim for wrongful termination, speak to an experienced Alabama employment lawyer.
Under federal law, it is illegal for an employer to fire someone based on a protected characteristic, such as race or religion. Federal law prohibits employers from firing employees because of their race, color, national origin, sex, religion, age (if the employee is at least 40), disability, citizenship status, or genetic information. Alabama law also prohibits discrimination based on age, if the employee is at least 40.
These laws also make it illegal for an employer to retaliate against you for asserting your rights. For example, if you complain to your company’s HR department that you believe you were passed over for promotion because of your age, your employer may not discipline or fire you for your complaint. If you are fired for complaining of discrimination, participating in an investigation of a discrimination complaint (whether you or another employee made the complaint), or testifying in court, you have a retaliation claim against your former employer.
If you believe you were fired for discriminatory or retaliatory reasons, you must file a charge of discrimination with a government agency before you may proceed with a lawsuit. In Alabama, the laws prohibiting discrimination are enforced by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which has offices in Birmingham and Mobile. You can find the location, contact information, and hours of these Alabama EEOC offices at the EEOC’s Field Offices page.
Breach of Contract
You may not be an at-will employee if you have an employment contract promising you job security. In Alabama, such a contract may be written, oral, or implied. If, for example, you signed a written employment agreement stating that you could be fired only for good cause, you do not work at will. If your employer fired you without good cause, you have a legal claim for breach of contract. The same is true if, for example, your employer promised during your job interview that you would not be fired for the first year of your employment. If you were fired sooner, you would have a breach of contract claim.
In some states, an employee who has been wrongfully terminated can bring a “tort” (personal injury) lawsuit. For example, some states allow fired employees to sue for fraud, violation of public policy, or infliction of emotional distress. Whether a fired employee can sue for personal injury – and which types of claims the employee can bring – varies from state to state, based on decisions by state court judges. These rules develop and change over time. To find out whether you might have a valid tort claim arising out of your termination, talk to an experienced employment lawyer.
Alabama Employment Protections
Under federal and Alabama law, employees enjoy certain legal protections on the job. An employer may not deny an employee these rights, nor fire an employee for asserting these rights. Some of these protections are listed below; to learn more about Alabama employment law, contact the Alabama Department of Labor.
Wage and Hour Issues
Alabama doesn’t have its own minimum wage law, so employees in Alabama are entitled to the federal minimum wage, currently $7.25 an hour. Federal law and the laws of some states allow employers to pay tipped employees a lower minimum wage, as long as they earn enough in tips to make up the difference. Alabama isn’t among them however: In Alabama, employees are entitled to the full minimum wage, even if they earn tips also.
Alabama also does not have its own overtime laws, but Alabama employees may be entitled to overtime under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) if they work more than 40 hours in a week.
Unlike some states, Alabama does not require employers to give meal or rest breaks during the work day. Federal law requires employers to pay for shorter employee breaks during the day (20 minutes or less). Employers also must pay their employees for any time during which they must work, even if the employer characterizes that time as a “break.”
Time Off Work
State and federal laws give employees the right to take time off work for certain civic obligations and personal responsibilities. Employers may not discipline or fire workers for exercising these rights. In Alabama, these rights include:
- Military leave. Under federal law, employees have the right to take up to five years of leave to serve in the military, with the right to be reinstated when they return to work. (This law also prohibits discrimination against employees based on their military service, protects employees from discharge without good cause for up to one year after they return from military duty, and provides other protections; see Nolo’s article Taking Military Leave for more information.) Alabama state law extends the protections of this federal law to employees who are called to active state duty for at least 30 days. (See Nolo’s Taking Military Leave in Alabama for more information.)
- Jury duty. Full-time employees are entitled to their usual pay while they serve on a jury.
- Voting. Employees may take necessary time off work to vote, up to one hour, unless they have two hours off after the polls open or one hour off before the polls close. Time off is unpaid.
- Family and medical leave. Although Alabama does not have its own family and medical leave law, Alabama employees are protected by the federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). This law gives eligible employees who work for larger employees the right to take up to 12 weeks off, unpaid, every year for their own serious health condition, to care for a family member with a serious health condition, to care for a new child, or to handle certain practical matters arising out of a family member’s military service; employees can take up to 26 weeks off in a single year to care for a family member who is seriously injured while serving in the military. Employees must be reinstated to the same position they previously held once their FMLA leave is over. For more information, see the articles at Nolo's FMLA page.
What to Do Next
If you think you were fired illegally, you should talk to an Alabama employment lawyer. A lawyer can help you sort through the facts and assess the strength of any claims you may have against your former employer. A lawyer can explain your options and help you protect your rights, whether you decide to try to get your job back, negotiate a severance package, or take your former employer to court.