Colorado Wrongful Termination Laws
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Have you recently lost your job? If so, you might be wondering whether you have grounds for a wrongful termination lawsuit. In Colorado, as in other states, employees work at will. This means an employee can generally be fired at any time and for any reason, or for no reason at all.
But there are some exceptions to the at-will rule. If your Colorado 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.
Every state’s laws on wrongful termination are different. This article covers some of the common legal grounds you might have for suing your employer in Colorado for wrongful termination. However, this is not a comprehensive list of Colorado employment rights, which can change as courts issue new rulings and legislators pass or modify laws. To find out the full extent of your claims, speak to an experienced Colorado employment lawyer. To learn more about Colorado employment law, contact the state Department of Labor and Employment.
Under federal law, it is illegal for an employer to fire an employee based on a protected characteristic. Federal law prohibits employers from firing employees based on 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 law 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.
Colorado law prohibits discrimination based on race, color, ancestry, national origin, sex, pregnancy, religion, disability (physical, mental, or learning disability), age (40 and older), sexual orientation (including perceived sexual orientation), or transgender status. In Colorado, all employers must comply with these laws, even if they have only one employee. Colorado also prohibits employers with at least 25 employees from discriminating against couples who are married, plan to marry, or are in a civil union with each other, in certain situations.
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 Colorado, the Colorado Civil Rights Division enforces state laws prohibiting discrimination. 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
If you have an employment contract promising you job security, you may not be an at-will employee. In Colorado, 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 employer made comments that you would "have a long future at the company as long as you performed well," that may create an implied contract of continued employment. 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
In Colorado, employees have certain rights under wage and hour laws. The minimum wage in Colorado is currently $8.23 per hour. Employees are entitled to overtime pay when they work more than 12 hours in a workday or more than 40 hours in a workweek. Employees in Colorado are also entitled to an unpaid 30-minute meal period after five hours of work. Employees are also entitled to a paid ten-minute rest break for every four hours (or major fraction) worked, in the middle of the work period, if practical.
It is illegal for employers in Colorado to fire an employee for filing a complaint with the state's wage board, participating in an investigation or proceeding, or similar activities.
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 Colorado, 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.) Under Colorado law, employees may take unlimited unpaid leave while serving in the Colorado National Guard. When they return from leave, they are also entitled to reinstatement to the same position they held prior to taking leave, with the same pay, benefits, and seniority. Members of the Colorado National Guard or the U.S. reserves may also take up to 15 days of unpaid leave per year for military training.
- Jury duty. Employees are entitled to be paid their regular wages, up to $50 a day, for the first three days of jury service. Employers may not make any demands on employees that would interfere with their ability to effective serve on a jury. Employers who fire or penalize employees for jury service are subject to criminal penalties and special damages in a wrongful termination lawsuit.
- Voting. In Colorado, employees may take up to two hours of paid leave to vote, unless they already have three hours off work to vote when the polls are open. The employer may decide when hours are taken, but must allow the employee to take time at the beginning or end of a shift, if the employee requests it.
- Family and medical leave. Colorado 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 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. Under Colorado's Family Care Act, employees who are eligible for FMLA leave are also entitled to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a domestic partner, or a partner in a civil union, with a serious health condition.
- Other protected leave. Colorado law also gives employees the right to take time off to seek treatment or assistance for domestic violence; to care for a newly adopted child; and to attend certain meetings and conferences at a child’s school. For more information on these state laws, see Nolo’s article Colorado Family and Medical Leave.
Other State Claims
- Workers' compensation. Employers may not fire employees for filing workers' compensation claims or otherwise asserting their rights under the workers' compensation laws.
- Workplace safety. Employers are prohibited from firing or disciplining employees who report workplace safety violations or who participate in investigations into violations of state safety laws.
- Off-duty conduct. Employees have the right to engage in lawful activities while off-duty and away from the employer's premises, and they cannot be fired for doing so. However, there may be an exception where the lawful activities interfere with the employee's job responsibilities or reveal a conflict of interest with the employee's duties to the employer.
- Legal rights and obligations. Employers cannot fire employees for refusing to engage in illegal activity or for exercising important job-related rights.
What to Do Next
If you think you were fired illegally, talk to a Colorado employment lawyer. 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.