South Carolina Wrongful Termination Laws
Have you recently lost your job? If so, you might be wondering whether you have grounds for a wrongful termination lawsuit. In South 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 South 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 employer in South Carolina for wrongful termination. But it’s not a comprehensive list of South 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 legal claims, speak to an experienced South Carolina employment lawyer. To learn more about South Carolina employment law, contact the office of the South Carolina Department of Labor, Licensing, and Regulation.
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.
South Carolina law prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, pregnancy, religion, age (40 and older), genetic information, and disability. South Carolina employers must comply with these laws if they have at least fifteen 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 South Carolina Human Affairs Commission enforces the state’s laws prohibiting discrimination; the Commission has offices in Columbia. 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. South Carolina also recognizes implied employment contracts based on oral promises or statements in an employee handbook that create a reasonable expectation of job security. For example, if your employee handbook says that employees won't be fired until they've received verbal and written warnings, you may be entitled to those procedures before being fired. 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
Because South Carolina has no minimum wage law, employees are entitled to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. South Carolina also has no overtime law. However, under federal 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, South Carolina does not. However, under federal law, employers who choose to provide 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 employees who exercise their rights under federal 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 South 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.) In South Carolina, members of the South Carolina National Guard and South Carolina State Guard are entitled to unpaid leave if called to active state duty by the governor.
- Jury duty. In South Carolina, employees are entitled to unpaid leave for jury service. Employers who fire or penalize employees for jury duty may be subject to special damages in a wrongful termination lawsuit.
- Family and medical leave. South 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.
Other State Claims
- Workers' compensation. Employers may not fire employees who file workers' compensation claims.
- Workplace safety. Employers are prohibited from firing employees who make complaints about workplace safety violations on who testify in such proceedings.
- Reporting child abuse. Employers cannot fire employees for reporting incidents of child abuse or child neglect.
What to Do Next
If you think you were fired illegally, talk to a South 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.