Have you recently lost your job? If so, you might be wondering whether you have grounds for a wrongful termination lawsuit against your former employer. In Connecticut, 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 Connecticut 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 legal grounds you might have for suing your employer in Connecticut for wrongful termination. But it’s not a comprehensive list of Connecticut employment rights, which can change as courts issue new rulings and legislators pass or modify laws. To find out whether you have a legal claim for wrongful termination, speak to an experienced Connecticut 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.
Connecticut law prohibits discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, religion, age, genetic information, disability (including present or past physical, mental, or learning disability, or mental retardation), marital status, sexual orientation, HIV/AIDS, or gender identity. In Connecticut, employers must comply with these laws if they have at least three 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 Connecticut, 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. State discrimination laws are enforced by the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities.
Breach of Contract
If you have an employment contract promising you job security, you may not be an at-will employee. 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, but fired you sooner.
Fraud, Emotional Distress, or Other Tort Claims
Depending on the circumstances, you might be able to bring a “tort” (personal injury) lawsuit for wrongful termination. For example, some states allow fired employees to sue for fraud, violation of public policy, infliction of emotional distress, or other injuries. Which types of claims (if any) an employee can bring depends on decisions by state court judges, which means that the rules are always developing and changing. To find out whether you might have a valid tort claim in your particular situation, you’ll need to talk to an experienced employment lawyer.
Connecticut Employment Protections
Under federal and Connecticut law, an employer cannot fire employees for exercising workplace rights that are guaranteed by law. Some of these protections are outlined below; to learn more about Connecticut employment law, contact the Connecticut Department of Labor.
Wage and Hour Issues
The minimum wage in Connecticut is currently $8.70 an hour; for 2015, the minimum wage will increase to $9. Because the federal minimum wage is higher (currently $7.25), the Connecticut minimum wage applies only to employees who aren’t covered by the federal law. 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 Connecticut, employers can pay tipped employees an hourly wage of $5.69 in hotel and restaurant industries and $7.34 for bartenders, as long as the employee’s tips bring the total hourly wage up to the state minimum wage. All other tipped employees may be paid 35 cents less than the full state minimum wage.
In Connecticut, eligible employees must receive overtime if they work more than 40 hours per week. they are also entitled to an overtime premium for hours worked on a seventh consecutive day. Not every type of job is eligible for overtime, however.
Employees in Connecticut are entitled to a meal break of 30 minutes, unpaid, after the first two hours of work and before the last two hours for those who work seven-and-a-half or more consecutive hours. Employees who already receive at least 30 minutes of paid breaks during the workday are not entitled to an additional unpaid meal break. 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 Connecticut, 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.) Connecticut law extends these rights to members of the National Guard who are called to service by the Governor. Connecticut law also gives employees who are members of the state's armed forces the right to take time off to perform ordered military duty, including meetings or drills, that take place during regular work hours, without loss or reduction of vacation or holiday benefits
- Jury duty. Full-time employees are entitled to earn their regular wages for their first five days of jury service. Employers who fire or penalize an employee for jury service are subject to criminal penalties and special damages in a wrongful termination lawsuit.
- Family and medical leave. Connecticut 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. Connecticut also has its own leave laws that give employees the right to 16 weeks off for certain family and medical obligations within a two-year period; the right to take time off to care for a family member who is seriously injured while on active military duty; the right to take a reasonable period of leave for pregnancy disability; and, for service employees, the right to paid sick leave. For more information, see Nolo’s article Family and Medical Leave in Connecticut.
What to Do Next
If you think you were fired illegally, talk to a Connecticut 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.