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 Kentucky, 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 Kentucky 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 Kentucky for wrongful termination. But it’s not a comprehensive list of Kentucky 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 Kentucky 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.
Kentucky law prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, religion, age (at least 40 years old), disability, HIV/AIDS, smoking, off-duty tobacco use, or occupational pneumoconiosis without respiratory impairment resulting from exposure to coal dust. Kentucky employers with at least eight employees must comply with these laws.
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 Kentucky, 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 Kentucky Commission on Human Rights enforces the state’s laws prohibiting discrimination; the Commission has offices in Louisville and Covington.
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.
Kentucky Employment Protections
Under federal and Kentucky 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 Kentucky employment law, contact the Kentucky Labor Cabinet.
Wage and Hour Issues
The minimum wage in Kentucky is 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. In Kentucky, employers can pay tipped employees an hourly wage of $2.13, as long as the employee’s tips bring the total hourly wage up to the state minimum wage.
Under federal and Kentucky law, employees who work more than 40 hours a week may be eligible for overtime. Not every type of job is eligible for overtime, however.
Kentucky law requires employers to provide both meal and rest breaks. Employees are entitled to a reasonable off-duty meal period close to the middle of the shift, and the employee can't be required to take it before the third or after the fifth hour of work. Employees are also entitled to a paid ten-minute rest period for each four-hour work period, and the rest period must be in addition to regularly scheduled meal period. Under federal law, employers must pay for shorter employee breaks during the day (under 20 minutes). 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 Kentucky, 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 Kentucky law, members of the state National Guard are entitled to take leave for active duty or training, with reinstatement upon their return. Kentucky law also prohibits employers from using threats to prevent employees from enlisting in the Kentucky National Guard or active militia and from discriminating against employees who are members of the military.
- Voting. Employers in Kentucky must give employees reasonable unpaid leave (not less than four hours) to vote.
- Jury duty. Employees are entitled to take unpaid leave for jury duty. Employers may not threaten or coerce employees who receive a notice or who serve on jury duty. Employers who fire or penalize an employee for jury service are subject to criminal charges and special damages in a wrongful termination lawsuit.
- Family and medical leave. Kentucky 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. Kentucky law also gives employees the right to take up to six weeks of leave to adopt a child. To learn more, see Nolo’s article Family and Medical Leave in Kentucky.
What to Do Next
If you think you were fired illegally, talk to a Kentucky 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.