Arizona Wrongful Termination Laws

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Gavel and Scales

Have you recently lost your job in Arizona? If so, you might be wondering whether you have grounds for a wrongful termination lawsuit. In Arizona, 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 the firing is not illegal.

But there are some exceptions to the at-will rule. For example, if your Arizona employer fires you for discriminatory reasons, in violation of an employment contract, or in retaliation for exercising your rights, you may have a legal claim against your employer.

This article covers some of the common legal grounds you might have for suing your employer in Arizona. Laws change, however, and this is not a comprehensive list of Arizona employment rights. To find out what your legal claims are, speak to an experienced Arizona employment lawyer. To learn more about Arizona employment law, contact the Industrial Commission of Arizona.

Discriminatory Firing

Under federal law, it is illegal for an employer to fire someone based on a protected characteristic. Federal law prohibits employers from firing employees because of their race, color, national origin, sex, pregnancy, religion, age (if the employee is at least 40), disability, citizenship status, or genetic information. However, only certain employers must comply with these laws. For most types of discrimination, the laws apply to employers with 15 or more employees. However, the prohibition against age discrimination applies to employers with 20 or more employees, and the ban against citizenship status discrimination applies to employers with only four or more employees.

Arizona law prohibits discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, religion, age, disability, genetic information, and HIV/AIDS. In Arizona, employers must comply with these laws if they have at least 15 employees.  

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. Likewise, your employer cannot fire you for participating in an investigation of a discrimination complaint (no matter who made the complaint), testifying in court, or making other efforts to stop discriminatory practices.

Before filing a discrimination or retaliation lawsuit, you must file a complaint with the appropriate government agency. In Arizona, the Civil Rights Division of the Arizona Attorney General’s Office enforces the state’s discrimination laws; you can file a complaint online or in person at the Division's office in Phoenix. Often times, state fair employment practices agencies will record your complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency that enforces federal antidiscrimination laws. However, you should check to make sure. If not, you may also have to file a complaint with the EEOC; you can find contact information for the nearest office 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 Arizona, an employment contract may be written, oral, or implied. In the first two types of contracts, your employer makes oral or written promises not to fire you for a certain period of time without good cause. In an implied contract, your employer doesn't make express promises, but acts in a way that creates a reasonable expectation that you would continue to be employed. For example, if your employee handbook says that employees won't be fired unless certain disciplinary steps are followed, that may create an implied contract that gives you certain rights before being terminated. If you have an employment contract, and your employer fires you without good cause, you have a legal claim for breach of contract.

Wage and Hour Issues

Employees in Arizona are entitled to a minimum wage of $8.05 an hour. Under federal law, Arizona employees are also entitled to overtime pay (time and a half) when they work more than 40 hours in a workweek. It's illegal for an employer to fire or retaliate against an employee for filing a complaint, testifying, or otherwise exercising their rights under these laws.

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 Arizona, 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.) Arizona law extends these rights to members of the state National Guard who are called to active duty or called to attend camps, formations, drills, or maneuvers.
  • Jury duty. Employees are entitled to take unpaid leave while they serve on a jury, without any loss of vacation rights or seniority. They can’t be required to use paid leave for this time. Employers who fire or penalize an employee for jury service are subject to criminal penalties.
  • Voting. Employees may take paid time off work to vote, unless they have three consecutive hours off at the beginning or end of their shift while the polls are open. Employees may take enough paid leave to add up to three consecutive hours, when combined with non-work time.
  • Family and medical leave. Although Arizona does not have its own family and medical leave law, Arizona employees are protected by the federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). This law requires employers with 50 or more employees to provide eligible employees with the right to take up to 12 weeks off, unpaid, every year for a 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 who take FMLA leave must be reinstated to the same position they previously held once their leave is over. For more information, see the articles at Nolo's FMLA page

Other State Claims

  • Workers' compensation. Employers may not fire employees who file workers' compensation claims or otherwise exercise their rights under workers' comp laws. 
  • Workplace safety. Employers are prohibited from firing employees who make complaints about workplace safety or testify in proceedings regarding safety violations.
  • Public policy. Employers cannot fire employees who exercise their rights under any state law, who refuse to violate any state law, or who report that a state law is being violated by their employer. 
  • Victim leave. Employers may not refuse to allow an employee who is a victim of a crime to take time off work to attend a legal proceeding or to obtain a restraining order. 

What to Do Next

If you think you were fired illegally, you should talk to an Arizona employment lawyer right away. A lawyer can help you sort through the facts and assess the strength of your claims. A lawyer can also inform you of other state or local claims that you may have in addition to those listed above. Whether you want to try to get your job back, negotiate a severance package, or sue your employer in court, a lawyer can walk you through your options and help you decide on how best to proceed.

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