Ohio 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 Ohio, 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 Ohio 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 Ohio employer for wrongful termination. But it’s not a comprehensive list of Ohio 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 Ohio employment lawyer. To learn more about Ohio employment law, contact the office of the Ohio Division of Industrial Compliance.

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, the minimum is 20 employees for age discrimination and four employees for citizenship status discrimination. 

Ohio law prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, national origin, ancestry, sex, pregnancy, religion, age (40 and older), disability, and military status. Ohio employers must comply with these laws if they have at least four 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. The Ohio Civil Rights Commission enforces the state’s laws prohibiting discrimination; you can file a complaint online or in person at one of the Commission's regional offices. 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. New York also recognizes employment contracts based on statements in an employee handbook and oral statements by your employer on which you relied. For example, if your employer told you that you "have a long future as long as you perform well" and you relied on that statement, you may have an implied contract. 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

Ohio employees are generally entitled to a minimum wage of $8.10 per hour. However, employers with less than $297,000 in gross annual revenue may pay employees $7.25 per hour. Under federal and Ohio 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, Ohio does not. However, under federal law, employers who choose to offer breaks of 20 minutes or less must generally 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 fire an employee for filing a wage complaint, testifying in a wage hearing, or instituting legal proceedings to collect unpaid wages.

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 Ohio, 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.) Ohio extends these rights to employees who need time off to serve in the state’s organized militia, National Guard, or other uniformed service.
  • Voting leave. Ohio employers must allow employees to take reasonable unpaid time to vote. Employers may not discourage or interfere with an employee's right to vote.
  • Jury duty. In Ohio, employees are entitled to unpaid leave for jury duty, and they may not be required to use their paid sick, annual, or vacation time.  Employers that fire or penalize employees are subject to criminal penalties.  
  • Family and medical leave. Ohio 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
  • Military family leave. Ohio employers with 50 or more employees must provide time off to an employee who is the spouse, parent, or legal guardian of a member of the uniformed service who is called to active duty for more than 30 days or who is injured while on active duty. To be eligible for leave, the employee must have worked for the employer for 12 consecutive months and worked at least 1,250 hours in the previous 12 months. The employee may take up to 10 days or 80 hours of unpaid leave, whichever is less.

Other State Claims

  • Workers' compensation. Employers may not fire employees in retaliation for filing workers' compensation claims. 
  • Workplace safety. Employers cannot fire employees for reporting violations of workplace safety laws. 
  • Public policy. Employers are prohibited from firing employees in violation of a recognized public policy. Among other things, courts have interpreted this rule to include firings employees for serving in the military, filing for unemployment, consulting an attorney, or reporting illegal activity to government authorities. 

What to Do Next

If you think you were fired illegally, talk to an Ohio employment lawyer. 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.

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