Wrongful Termination Laws in the District of Columbia

If you've recently lost your job, you may be wondering  whether you have grounds for a wrongful termination lawsuit. In the District of Columbia, as in all states (except Montana), 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. If your DC employer fires you for discriminatory reasons, in violation of an employment contract, or in retaliation for exercising your rights, for example, 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 D.C. employer for wrongful termination. However, this is not a comprehensive list of employment rights in the District, 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 D.C. employment lawyer. To  learn more about D.C. employment law, contact the District  Department of Employment Services.

Discriminatory Firing

Under federal law, it is illegal for an employer to fire someone based on a protected characteristic. Federal law prohibits employers from firing employees because of their 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; the minimum is 20 employees for age discrimination and four employees for discrimination based on citizenship status.  

D.C. law protects several characteristics that are not protected by federal law. In D.C., it is illegal to discriminate based on  race, color, national origin, sex (including pregnancy and breast feeding), religion, disability (physical or mental), age (18 and older), genetic information, marital status (including domestic partnership), sexual orientation,  gender identity or expression, family responsibilities,  personal appearance, political affiliation, or  enrollment in a college, university, or other secondary school.  In the District of Columbia, all employers must comply with these laws, even those with 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.  In the District of Columbia, the  Office of Human Rights  enforces state laws prohibiting discrimination.  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 an employment contract promising you job security, you may not be an at-will employee.  In D.C.,  an employment contract may be written, oral, or implied. In the first two types of contracts, your employer makes oral or written promises not to fire you for a certain period of time without good cause. In an implied contract, your employer doesn't make express promises, but acts in a way that creates a reasonable expectation that you would continue to be employed.  For example,  if your employee handbook says that employees won't be fired without good cause, that may create an implied contract of continued employment.  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

In the District of Columbia, the minimum wage is currently $9.50 per hour, but this will increase to  $10.50 on July 1, 2015. Employees must receive overtime pay when they work more than 40 hours in a workweek. D.C. does not require  employers to provide meal or rest breaks. However, if your employer chooses to offer meal or rest breaks, you must be paid for any breaks of 20 minutes or less. It is illegal for D.C. employers to fire an employee for filing a wage claim or testifying in a wage hearing.  

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 D.C., 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). D.C. does not have its own military leave law.
  • Jury duty. Employees are entitled to take leave for jury service. When jury service is for five days or less, employers with 11 or more employees must pay  full-time employees their regular wages.  Employers who fire or penalize an employee for jury service are subject to criminal penalties and damages in a wrongful termination lawsuit.
  • Family and medical leave. In the District of Columbia, 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 FMLA leave is over. D.C. law has its own family and medical leave law that applies to employers with 20 or more employees. Eligible employees may take up to  16 weeks off in a two-year period for their own serious health conditions. Employees may also take up to 16 weeks in a two-year period to bond with a new child or to care for a family member with a serious health condition.  For more information, see  Family and Medical Leave Laws in the District of Columbia.
  • Other protected leave. Employees are also entitled to three to seven days of paid sick leave per year, depending on the size of their employers, to use for their own illnesses, the illness of a family member, or or to seek services related to domestic violence or sexual abuse. In D.C., employees also have the right to take up to 24 hours of unpaid leave in a one-year period to attend a child's school activities.  

Other State Claims

  • Workers' compensation. Employers may not fire or retaliate against employees who file workers' compensation claims or who testify in workers' compensation proceedings.  
  • Work safety. Employers are prohibited from firing or retaliating against employees for filing complaints about workplace safety violations or otherwise exercising their rights under workplace safety laws.  
  • Public policy. Employers cannot fire employees for refusing to perform illegal acts.  

What to Do Next

If you believe you were wrongfully terminated, you should speak to a D.C. employment lawyer right away. A lawyer can evaluate your claims and walk you through your options, whether it be negotiating a settlement, filing an administrative claim, or moving forward with a lawsuit.  A lawyer can also inform you of other  state or local claims that you may have in addition to those listed above.

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