Wrongful Termination Claims: Were You Fired Illegally?

Learn about common types of wrongful termination claims.

If you’ve been fired from your job, you may be wondering whether your termination was legal. In every state but Montana, employees generally work at will. This means they can quit – or be fired – at any time, for any reason, as long as the reason for termination doesn’t violate the law. “Wrongful termination” is simply a catchall category that refers to illegal reasons for firing.

There are a number of types of wrongful termination claims. For example, you might have a breach of contract claim, a discrimination or retaliation claim, or a claim for violation of public policy. The legal arguments that are available to you depends on your state’s laws and on the facts of your case. This article summarizes a handful of common wrongful termination claims. To learn the full extent of your legal options, you should speak to an employment lawyer in your area.

Contract Claims

If you were fired in violation of an employment agreement, you might have a breach of contract claim. An employment agreement can be written, oral, or implied from all of the facts and circumstances. No matter what form your contract takes, if you were fired for reasons that are not allowed by the agreement, you might have a legal claim.

Example: John is Vice President of Sales at Big Corporation. He has a written employment contract that requires him to stay with the company for at least two years. The contract says that he may be fired during that time only for financial misfeasance. After a year of work, John is fired due to a corporate restructuring that eliminates his position. Because John hasn’t committed financial misfeasance, he has a breach of contract claim.

Discrimination Claims

Even if you work at will, you may not be fired for discriminatory reasons. Federal law protects employees from discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex (including pregnancy), religion, disability, age (if the employee is at least 40), citizenship status, and genetic information. State laws often protect additional categories, such as marital status or sexual orientation. If you have been fired based on one of these protected traits, you may have a claim against your employer. (To learn the rules in your state, select it from the list at our State Wrongful Termination Laws page.)

It’s also illegal to fire an employee in retaliation for making a complaint, filing a lawsuit, or participating in an investigation regarding workplace discrimination. For example, if you are fired because you complained to HR about sexual harassment or spoke to an investigator about a coworker’s discrimination complaint, you have a potential claim for retaliation.

If you believe you were fired for discriminatory or retaliatory reasons, it’s especially important to talk to an experienced attorney right away. Before you can sue, you must file a charge of discrimination with a federal or state governmental agency. The time limits for filing a charge are tight, and you will lose your right to sue if you miss them.

Wrongful Termination in Violation of Public Policy

Many states prohibit employers from firing employees for reasons that violate public policy: that is, reasons that society views as unjust and unfair. However, exactly what constitutes public policy – and which job terminations violate it – vary widely from state to state.

In some states, courts will recognize only enacted laws as public policy. If, for example, state law allows employees to take time off work to vote, an employee who is fired for exercising this right might have a public policy claim. Some states also recognize agency regulations as a source of public policy, and some states have even more generous standards.

Because of this wide variation, it’s hard to generalize about which reasons for termination violate public policy. However, you should review your situation with an attorney if you are fired:

  • for exercising a legal right, such as voting, serving in the military, sitting on a jury, serving as a volunteer firefighter, filing a wage complaint, filing a workers' compensation claim, or taking legally protected time off work
  • for refusing to engage in illegal behavior, such as falsifying corporate tax returns or lying to government auditors, or
  • for reporting illegal conduct, such as safety violations or shareholder fraud.

Fraud

If you were fired after your employer induced you to come work for the company under false pretenses or tricked you into taking the job, you might have a fraud claim. Fraud is hard to prove, however, because you can’t win by showing that the facts were different than you believed. Instead, you must prove that your employer actively lied, with the specific intention of deceiving you.

Example: Christine is recruited to take a position with a company in another state. She is promised stock options as part of her compensation package, and she is shown the company’s financial forecast for several years out. She accepts the job, sells her home, and moves to start her new position. Several months later, the company goes under. She never receives the stock options she was promised, and she learns that the forecasts were falsified to hide the company’s impending failure. Christine might have a claim for fraud.

What to Do Next

These are only some of the wrongful termination claims that might be available to you. To make sure you have considered all of your options, you should speak to a lawyer if you were fired in suspicious circumstances. A lawyer can assess the facts of your case and explain the strength of any potential claims. A lawyer can also act to protect your rights by, for example, filing a charge of discrimination or sending your employer a letter demanding a settlement.

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