Montana Wrongful Termination Laws
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. Montana offers a variety of job protections to employees. In fact, employees in Montana have more job security than employees in any other state. That's because Montana is the only state in the nation that doesn't follow a default at-will employment rule.
No At-Will Employment
In every other state, employees work at will for the length of their employment. This means that employers can fire employees in those states at any time and for any reason that isn't illegal. However, in Montana, employees work at will only during an initial probationary period. During that time, the employer may terminate the employee for any reason (except for illegal reasons discussed below), and the employee may quit for any reason. However, once the probationary period is over, employers in Montana must have good cause to fire their employees.
Employers are allowed to establish their own probationary periods. However, if your employer fails to set an established period, the probationary period is six months from your date of hire.
For your employer to have good cause to fire you, it must have a reasonable, work-related basis for doing so. Good cause includes an employee's failure to perform in a satisfactorily manner, the disruption of the employer's business operations, or any other legitimate business reason. However, employers may not fire employees for their off-duty use of tobacco or other lawful products away from the workplace.
In addition to the protections above, Montana employers may not fire employees for reasons that are illegal under federal and state law. 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 (including pregnancy), 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. However, for age discrimination the minimum is 20 employees, and for citizenship status discrimination the minimum is four employees.
Montana law prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, pregnancy, religion, age, disability, or marital status. All Montana employers, even those with only one employee, must comply with state law prohibiting discrimination.
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 Montana, the Human Rights Bureau of the Montana Department of Labor and Industry’s Employment Relations Division enforces the state’s laws prohibiting discrimination. The Bureau has offices in Helena. In many cases, 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, your employer is limited by the terms of your agreement. For example, your contract may state that you are entitled to certain procedures before being terminated, or that you cannot be fired without good cause for the entire duration of your employment (in other words, it may do away with a probationary period). If your employer fires you without following the terms of your agreement, you have a claim for breach of contract.
Wage and Hour Issues
In Montana, the minimum wage is $8.05 per hour. Small employers - those with gross annual sales of $110, 000 or less - may pay employees as little as $4 per hour under Montana law. However, if those employers are subject to the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) (as many employers are), they must pay at least the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Under federal and Montana law, employees who work more than 40 hours a week are eligible for overtime.
Although some states require employers to provide meal or rest breaks, Montana does not. However, under federal law, employers who choose to provide breaks of 20 minutes or less must pay employees for that time. Employers also must pay their employees for any time during which they must work, even if the employer characterizes that time as a “break.” It is illegal for employers to retaliate against employees who exercise their rights under wage and hour 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 Montana, 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.) Montana law extends these rights to all employees ordered to federally funded military service. Montana also protects employees and applicants from discrimination based on their membership in the state organized militia. Employers may not threaten employees in an effort to dissuade them from enlisting. Members of the state organized militia who are called to state active duty during a state-declared disaster or emergency are entitled to time off for the duration of their service and reinstatement upon their return.
- Family and medical leave. Montana employees are protected by the federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The FMLA 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 once their leave is over. To learn more, see the articles at Nolo’s FMLA page. Montana law also gives employees the right to take a reasonable leave of absence for pregnancy.
- Pregnancy leave. Under Montana's Maternity Leave Act, all employers must provide employees with reasonable unpaid time off for pregnancy and reinstatement to the same position (or an equivalent one) once the leave is over. Employers are not required to provide reinstatement if it would be unreasonable or impossible under the circumstances. Employers may not fire employees based on pregnancy, deny disability benefits to employees disabled by pregnancy, or require pregnant employees to take mandatory maternity leave.
What to Do Next
If you think you were fired illegally, talk to a Montana employment lawyer. While this article covers some of the common legal grounds you might have for suing your employer, it's not a comprehensive list of Montana employment law rights, which can change as courts issue new rulings and legislators pass or modify laws. A lawyer can help you sort through the facts and advise you of the full extent of your legal claims.