North Carolina Wrongful Termination Laws

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Gavel and Scales

Have you recently lost your job? If so, you might be wondering whether you have grounds for a wrongful termination lawsuit. In North Carolina, 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. For example, if your North Carolina employer fires you for discriminatory reasons, in violation of an employment contract, or in retaliation for exercising your rights, 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 North Carolina employer for wrongful termination. But it’s not a comprehensive list of North Carolina 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 North Carolina employment lawyer. To learn more about North Carolina employment law, contact the office of the North Carolina Department of Labor.

Discriminatory Firing

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 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. 

North Carolina law prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, religion, age, disability, genetic information, HIV or AIDS, military status or service, and sickle cell or hemoglobin C trait. North Carolina 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. 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 North Carolina, the Employment Discrimination Bureau enforces the state’s laws prohibiting discrimination; the Bureau has offices in Raleigh. 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 a written employment contract promising you job security, you are not an at-will employee. North Carolina also recognizes employment contracts based on statements in an employee handbook, such as statements that you will be fired only after certain disciplinary steps are followed. Oral promises by your employer may also create a contract, as long as you provided something in return and relied on your employer's promises. 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

North Carolina employees are entitled to a minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Under federal and North Carolina law, employees who work more than 40 hours a week are eligible for overtime. While some states require employers to offer meal or rest breaks, North Carolina 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 discriminate or retaliate against employees who file wage claims or who participate in wage hearings or other legal proceedings.

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 North Carolina, 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 North Carolina law, members of the National Guard who are called to active state duty by the governor are also entitled to unpaid leave, with reinstatement when their service is complete. North Carolina also prohibits discriminating against or firing employees because they must perform state or federal military service.
  • Jury duty. In North Carolina, employees are entitled to unpaid leave for jury duty. Employees may not be demoted or fired based on their jury service.  Employers who fire or penalize employees for jury duty must reinstate the employee and pay reasonable damages.
  • Family and medical leave. North Carolina employees are protected by the federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The FMLA 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 Nolo’s FMLA page
  • School activities. North Carolina law gives employees the right to take up to four hours of unpaid leave per year to attend a child’s school activities. 
  • Domestic violence leave. North Carolina also requires employers to allow an employee to take reasonable time off to get an order of protection from domestic violence for the employee or his or her child.

Other State Claims

  • Workers' compensation. Employers may not fire employees for filing workers' compensation claims or exercising their rights under workers' compensation laws. 
  • Workplace safety. Employers are prohibited from firing or otherwise retaliating against employees who report workplace safety violations or participate in investigations into such violations.
  • Whistleblowing. Employers cannot fire employees for reporting illegal activity to government agencies. 
  • Off-duty conduct. Employers may not discriminate against employees who use lawful products, including tobacco and alcohol, while off-duty and away from the employer's premises. 

What to Do Next

If you think you were fired illegally, talk to a North Carolina employment lawyer. Whether you want to get your job back, negotiate a settlement, or file a lawsuit, a lawyer can help you assert your legal rights. A lawyer can also inform you of any other claims that you might have under state or local law. 

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