Have you recently lost your job? If so, you might be wondering whether you have grounds for a wrongful termination lawsuit. In Missouri, as in 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. For example, if your Missouri 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.
(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 Missouri employer for wrongful termination. But it’s not a comprehensive list of Missouri employment rights, which can change as courts issue new rulings and legislators pass or modify laws. To find out the full extent of your claims, speak to an experienced Missouri employment lawyer.
Under federal law, it is 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 (including 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, for age discrimination the minimum is 20 employees, and for citizenship status discrimination the minimum is four employees.
Missouri law prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, ancestry, national origin, sex, religion, age (40 to 70), disability, HIV/AIDS, or genetic information. Missouri employers with six or more employees must comply with the state’s law prohibiting discrimination.
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 Missouri, the Missouri Commission on Human Rights enforces the state’s 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.
In Missouri, the at-will status can be altered only by a written employment agreement. While many other states will find an implied contract based on oral statements by your employer or written statements in an employee handbook, Missouri will not. If you have a written employment contract, and your employer fires you without good cause, you have a legal claim for breach of contract.
It is illegal for Missouri employers to fire employees for filing wage complaints, testifying in wage proceedings, or instituting legal proceedings for wage violations.
Missouri's minimum wage in 2020 is $9.45 per hour; it then increases each year before reaching $12 an hour in 2023. Under federal and Missouri law, employees who work more than 40 hours a week are eligible for overtime. Missouri doesn't require employers to provide meal or rest breaks. However, if they choose to provide breaks of 20 minutes of less, federal law requires that they pay employees for that time. Employers also must pay employees for any time when they must work, even if the employer characterizes that time as a “break.”
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 Missouri, these rights include:
If you think you were fired illegally, talk to a Missouri employment lawyer. 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.