The first thing any discharged employee interested in filing a wrongful termination lawsuit against his former employer must determine is whether or not he or she was employed as an “employee at will.” Workers without union connections or individual employment contracts are known as “at will employees.” As a general rule, an employer can change an at-will employee’s duties, reduce his or her salary, and/or discontinue his or her employment at any time, for any reason or for no reason at all. In short, an at-will employee has only a few valid foundations on which to file a cause of action for a wrongful termination. Each State will have its own laws and regulations regarding at-will status employees. In fact, the State of Montana has completely abolished employment at will and it prohibits any discharge without good cause thereby providing all workers a cause of action against an employer engaging in a wrongful discharge.
One type of discharge situation where an “at will” employee may validly take legal action against the former employer is where the employee was fired by that employer for the underlying purpose of evading the payment of that employee’s earned bonuses and/or commissions. This kind of termination is known as a “predatory discharge” and the employee victim of this kind of termination may also sue for damages to recovering the lost benefits, wages and commission earnings.
Violation of Public Policy Discharge
At-will employees can also sue an employer for wrongful discharge if they have been terminated by the employer for engaging in conduct that is statutorily protected or even mandated. Examples of this kind of wrongful termination would be an employee refusing to commit an unlawful act for the employer, asserting a legally guaranteed right in an employment setting, or reporting some kind of criminal wrongdoing in connection with his or her employment.
The third circumstance where an at-will employee has a valid cause of action for wrongful discharge is where the employer has terminated the employee after allowing “malicious interference” with that employee’s employment. Termination arising from any kind of “spiteful purpose” such as discrimination as to gender, race or age discrimination, and disability discrimination would give rise to a valid cause of action against the employer for wrongful termination due to a malicious discharge.
Most discharged employees would benefit from a consultation with an employment attorney for the reason that this area of law can be extremely complicated for the layman to understand. Only an experience lawyer can properly determine whether or not an employee has a valid cause of action against a former employer. Never decide arbitrarily that your situation is not actionable without seeking at least a fundamental discussion of the discharge with a qualified employment attorney. Many times a wrongful termination lawsuit will be coupled with a tort claim such as employer defamation, negligent or intentional infliction of emotional distress on the employee, or more commonly, a violation of State and federal discrimination laws as to age, gender, disability, race, religions such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, Equal Pay Act, the Family Medical Leave Act, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and other related torts and statutory violations. So it is always best to check with a lawyer to determine if you have an actionable employment dispute before giving up on your rights and potential damages.