Have you recently lost your job in Arizona? If so, you might be wondering whether you have grounds for a wrongful termination lawsuit. In Arizona, as in other states, employees work at will. This means an employee can be fired at any time and for any reason, or for no reason at all, as long as the reason for the firing is not illegal.
But there are some exceptions to the at-will rule. For example, if your Arizona 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.
What If You Were Illegally Fired During the Coronavirus Pandemic?
A shocking number of Americans have lost their jobs as a result of the economic downturn stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. But what if you were fired during the pandemic? Depending on the reason you were dismissed, you might have a valid claim for wrongful termination. For instance, it would generally be illegal for your employer to fire you:
- in retaliation after you complained about or reported unsafe working conditions, such as inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE), social distancing, or cleaning
- for refusing to work because you had a reasonable belief that you faced an immediate risk of death or serous physical harm due to unsafe working conditions
- for refusing to violate a legal shelter-in-place order
- for taking family or medical leave under state or federal law, including the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) and the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) (discussed below)
- because you have a preexisting condition (including your age) that makes you more vulnerable to the coronavirus; or
- because you filed a claim for workers’ compensation benefits for COVID-19.
Also, if you were essentially forced to quit your job because of serious coronavirus-related safety hazards that put you at risk, you might have grounds to sue your employer for “wrongful constructive termination” in violation of public policy. Arizona allows this type of lawsuit when the working conditions were so difficult that any reasonable person would feel compelled to quit, as long as you gave at least 15 days' notice of your intention to resign for this reason, and your employer failed to respond to your concerns. (Learn more about wrongful termination in the context of COVID-19.)
This article covers some of the common legal grounds you might have for suing your employer in Arizona. Laws change, however, and this is not a comprehensive list of Arizona employment rights. To find out what your legal claims are, speak to an experienced Arizona employment lawyer.
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 certain employers must comply with these laws. For most types of discrimination, the laws apply to employers with 15 or more employees. However, the prohibition against age discrimination applies to employers with 20 or more employees, and the ban against citizenship status discrimination applies to employers with only four or more employees.
Arizona law prohibits discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, religion, age, disability, genetic information, and HIV/AIDS. In Arizona, employers must comply with these laws if they have at least 15 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. In Arizona, the Civil Rights Division of the Arizona Attorney General’s Office enforces the state’s discrimination laws; you can file a complaint online or in person at the Division's office in Phoenix. Often times, 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 may not be an at-will employee if you have an employment contract promising you job security. In Arizona, 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 unless certain disciplinary steps are followed, that may create an implied contract that gives you certain rights before being terminated. If you have an employment contract, and your employer fires you without good cause, you have a legal claim for breach of contract.
As of January 1, 2020, employees in Arizona are entitled to a minimum wage of $12 an hour. Under federal law, Arizona employees are also entitled to overtime pay (time and a half) when they work more than 40 hours in a workweek. It's illegal for an employer to fire or retaliate against an employee for filing a complaint, testifying, or otherwise exercising their rights under these laws.
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 Arizona, these rights include:
If you think you were fired illegally, you should talk to an Arizona employment lawyer right away. A lawyer can help you sort through the facts and assess the strength of your claims. A lawyer can also inform you of other state or local claims that you may have in addition to those listed above. Whether you want to try to get your job back, negotiate a severance package, or sue your employer in court, a lawyer can walk you through your options and help you decide on how best to proceed.