Rhode Island 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 Rhode Island, 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 Rhode Island 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 Rhode Island employer for wrongful termination. But it’s not a comprehensive list of Rhode Island employment rights, which can change as courts issue new rulings and legislators pass or modify laws. To find out the full extent of your legal claims, speak to an experienced Rhode Island employment lawyer. To learn more about Rhode Island employment law, contact the office of the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training.

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. 

Rhode Island law prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, pregnancy, religion, age (40 to 70), disability, genetic information, sexual orientation, AIDS or HIV status, gender identity or expression, homelessness, or status as a victim of domestic abuse. Rhode Island employers must comply with these laws if they have at least four employees. All employers must comply with state laws prohibiting gender-based wage discrimination, even if they have only one employee.

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 Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights enforces the state’s laws prohibiting discrimination; the Commission has offices in Providence. 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. Rhode Island also recognizes implied employment contracts based on statements in an employee handbook or other written policy, as long as the employee reasonably believes that the policy will continue to be valid. For example, if your employee handbook states that employees will be fired only for good cause, and there is no disclaimer that the company can change the policy at any time, 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

Rhode Island employees are entitled to a minimum wage of $9 per hour. Under federal and state law, employees who work more than 40 hours a week are eligible for overtime. Under Rhode Island law, employees are entitled to an unpaid 20-minute meal break during a six-hour shift; employees who work an eight-hour shift are entitled to a 30-minute unpaid meal break. Under federal law, employers who choose to offer shorter breaks throughout the day (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 or otherwise retaliate against employees who make wage complaints to their employers or who institute legal proceedings to recover 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 Rhode Island, 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.) Rhode Island law extends these same protections to members of the state military forces or National Guard who are called to active state duty. Members of the National Guard and Reserves are also entitled to take unpaid leave for training.
  • Jury duty. In Rhode Island, employees are entitled to unpaid leave for jury service. Employers may not take away raises, promotions, seniority, or other benefits because of jury service. Employers who fire or penalize employees for jury duty may be subject to criminal penalties.
  • Family and medical leave. Rhode Island 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.) Rhode Island has its own family medical leave law, which applies to employers with 50 or more employees. Eligible employees may take up to 13 weeks of unpaid leave in a two-year period for similar parental and family leave reasons allowed under the FMLA. However, unlike the FMLA, Rhode Island includes parents-in-law and domestic partners in the definition of family member. And, Rhode Island is one of a handful of states that has a temporary disability insurance program, which provides some wage replacement for employees who are temporarily unable to work due to a disability (including pregnancy). This program was recently extended to include temporary caregiver leave, so new parents and employees who need time to care for a family member with a serious health condition may receive some wage replacement as well. For more details, see Nolo’s article Rhode Island Family and Medical Leave.
  • Military family leave. Employers with 15 or more employees must provide unpaid time off to an eligible employee who is the spouse or parent of someone called to military service lasting longer than 30 days. Employees are entitled to up to 15 days of unpaid leave, or if the employer has more than 50 employees, employees may take up to 30 days of unpaid leave.
  • School activities leave. Employers with 50 or more employees must provide eligible employees with up to 10 hours of unpaid leave each year to attend a child's school activities or conferences. 

Workplace Safety

Employers may not fire employees who file complaints about workplace safety violations or who exercise any rights under occupational health and safety laws.

What to Do Next

If you think you were fired illegally, talk to a Rhode Island 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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