Have you recently lost your job? If so, you might be wondering whether you have grounds for a wrongful termination lawsuit. In Michigan, as in most 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. If your Michigan 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.
What If You Were Illegally Fired During the Coronavirus Pandemic?
While most job losses during the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted from layoffs, some workers have been fired for reasons related to the novel coronavirus. If this happened to you, you might have a valid claim for wrongful termination, depending on the reason you were let go. For example, 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, Michigan enacted a law in 2020 (H.B. 6032) that prohibits employers from discharging or otherwise retaliating against employees who don't report to work because they've tested positive for COVID-19, have primary symptoms of the disease (even if they later test negative), have been in close contact with an infected or symptomatic person, or reported coronavirus-related health violations at work. The law specifically allows workers to sue their employers for violations of the law.
(Learn more about wrongful termination in the context of COVID-19.)
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 Michigan for wrongful termination. But it's not a comprehensive list of Michigan 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 Michigan employment lawyer.
Under federal law, it's 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 discrimination based on citizenship status.
Michigan law prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, religion, age, disability, HIV/AIDS, genetic information, marital status, height, weight, or misdemeanor criminal arrest record. Michigan employers, even those with only one employee, must comply with the state's discrimination laws.
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 Michigan, the Michigan Department of Civil Rights enforces the state's laws prohibiting discrimination; the Department has offices in Lansing and Detroit. 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.
If you have an employment contract promising you job security, you may not be an at-will employee. In Michigan, 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 acts in a way that creates a reasonable expectation that you would continue to be employed. For example, if your employer told you that you wouldn't be fired as long as you performed well, you may have an implied contract. If you have an employment contract, and your employer fires you without good cause, you have a legal claim for breach of contract.
Employees in Michigan are entitled to a minimum wage ($9.65 an hour in 2020). Under federal and Michigan law, employees who work more than 40 hours a week are entitled to overtime. Although some states require employers to provide meal or rest breaks, Michigan is not one of them. However, under federal law, employers who choose to offer shorter breaks (20 minutes or less) must typically pay employees for that time. It is illegal for employers to fire an employee for testifying before the Wage Deviation Board (the agency that enforces state wage and hour laws) or for serving on the Wage Deviation Board.
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 Michigan, these rights include:
If you think you were fired illegally, talk to a Michigan employment lawyer. A lawyer can help you sort through the facts and assess the strength of any claims you may have against your former employer. A lawyer can explain your options and help you protect your rights, whether you decide to try to get your job back, negotiate a severance package, or take your former employer to court.