Have you recently lost your job in Arizona? If so, you might be wondering whether you have grounds for a wrongful termination lawsuit against your former employer. 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 firing is not illegal.
But there are some exceptions to the at-will rule. If your Arizona 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 Arizona for wrongful termination. Laws change, however, and this is not a comprehensive list of Arizona employment rights. To find out whether you have a legal claim for wrongful termination, speak to an experienced Arizona 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. However, only employers with a minimum number of employees must comply with these laws. Most types of discrimination are prohibited once an employer has at least 15 employees; the minimum is 20 employees for age discrimination, and four employees for discrimination based on citizenship status.
Arizona law prohibits discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex (including parenthood), 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. 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 Arizona, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces federal laws prohibiting discrimination; you can find out where to file a complaint at the EEOC’s Field Offices page. The Civil Rights Division of the Arizona Attorney General’s Office enforces the state’s discrimination laws; the Commission has an office in Phoenix.
Breach of Contract
You may not be an at-will employee if you have an employment contract promising you job security. 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.
Arizona Employment Protections
Under federal and Arizona 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. To learn more about Arizona employment law, contact the Industrial Commission of Arizona.
Wage and Hour Issues
The minimum wage in Arizona is currently $7.80 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. In Arizona, employers may pay tipped employees a minimum of $4.80 an hour. However, if an employee doesn’t earn at least enough in tips to receive at least the full minimum hourly wage, the employer must pay the difference.
Arizona does not have its own overtime laws, but Arizona employees may be entitled to overtime under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) if they work more than 40 hours in a week. Arizona 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 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 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 Arizona 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.